Feeling glum? Just smile.

June 7, 2007 at 3:59 pm Leave a comment

Apparently, it’s possible to make oneself feel happy simply by acting happy.

Or at least, so say psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, who have been studying the human face since the 1960s. Part of the pair’s research (which is discussed in chapter 6 of Blink) blink.gifrequired learning to isolate, identify, and perform all of the distinct movements possible for each muscle in the human face. (There are 43 such movements, which can produce thousands of separate facial expressions when different muscle movements are executed together.)

As the two psychologists were learning to identify and master each muscle movement, they sat across from each other for days on end, checking each other closely as each in turn learned to isolate a given facial muscle and manipulate it.

One of the astounding insights gleaned through this process was that the face and its expressions do not simply reflect what is going on inside our minds; rather, in some sense, facial expressions are what’s going on in our minds.

face.jpgEkman’s and Friesen’s first inkling about this fact came as the two were practicing facial expressions associated with anger and distress. At the end of the day, both realized something surprising: they felt terrible. The two began keeping track of the effect of their practice sessions on their own attitudes and eventually discovered that the movement of particular facial muscles is enough to produce changes in the autonomic nervous system.

In other words, a facial expression of, say, anger actually generates anger; a smile generates happiness.

A few years later, a team of German psychologists documented a similar effect in a study done on people watching cartoons. For the study, some people watched cartoons while holding a pen clenched between their teeth (forcing them to smile), while the other participants watched while holding a pen between their lips (making it physically impossible to smile). Guess which group found the cartoons markedly funnier?

smile.jpgSuch research points to the conclusion that while the face in some cases reflects the emotion already felt inside, the process also works backward, with facial movements producing internal emotion.

All of which is interesting in light of, say, 1 Thessalonians 5:18:

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

When presented with such an injunction, perhaps it’s not relevant to ask whether or not we feel grateful (or happy, or satisfied, or whatever). After all, it may not be so much that the grateful express thanks as that those who thank become grateful.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Blink and the power of the subconscious My big fat Greek mindset

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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