Health and Wellness

This simple tactic can 'trick' your brain into feeling happier, researchers say


Fake it 'til you feel it? That's what researchers at the University at South Australia say could help when you're feeling down.

According to a recent study published in the journal Experimental Psychology, researchers found smiling — even a fake smile — can have a positive impact on mood. Essentially, triggering certain facial muscles by smiling can "trick" your brain into thinking you're happy.

"When your muscles say you're happy, you're more likely to see the world around you in a positive way," Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, study author and human and artificial cognition expert at the University of South Australia, said in a press release.

To conduct the study, researchers asked 120 participants (55 males and 65 females) to smile by holding a pen between their teeth, which forced their facial muscles to replicate the movement of a smile. 

They found that facial muscular activity not only altered one's facial expression but also generated more positive emotions.

Marmolejo-Ramos said the muscle movements of a smile stimulate the amygdala — the part of your brain that allows you to feel emotions — by releasing neurotransmitters "to encourage an emotionally positive state."

"For mental health, this has interesting implications. If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as 'happy,' then we can potentially use this mechanism to help boost mental health," Marmolejo-Ramos said.

Research from New York-based neurologist Dr. Isha Gupta also found that the mere act of smiling can increase levels of hormones like dopamine and serotonin in the body.

"Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness. Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression," Gupta previously told NBC News.

What's more, another 2009 study from researchers at the University of Cardiff in Wales found a small group (about 25 people) of botox users were happier on average because of their inability to frown compared to those who could frown. While other studies link smiling to lower blood pressure and longevity.

In a nutshell, said Marmolejo-Ramos, there is a strong link between action and perception.

"A 'fake it 'til you make it' approach could have more credit than we expect," he said.

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