How to Make Things Instantly Better (in 30 Milliseconds or less)

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: When we’re in an argument or unhappy environment, we want to make things better but don’t know how!
The Science: Humans respond physiologically and psychologically to facial expressions.
The Solution: Your facial expressions (smiling!) can literally change the world around you.
It happens.  You’re feeling down and need a quick pick-me-up.  Or maybe you’ve found yourself in a silly argument you realize you’d like to get out of.  You want to make things better in any little way you can, fast.  What can you do?

Humans react almost instantly to the facial expressions we see in others.  It takes just 30 milliseconds (thousandths of a second) for your brain to recognize and respond to others’ emotional expressions, such as smiling or frowning.  Research shows that these reactions are unconscious, meaning that they’re not even accessible to the conscious part of the brain, but rather are innate, unchangeable biological responses.  We naturally mirror the facial expressions of the people we see.

So, when you smile at someone, he or she really can’t help but smile back at you.  (Even if it’s more physiological than visible, it’s there, according to measurement with some pretty fine-tuned instruments.)

Smiling Makes Us Happier

What’s more, studies have shown that the act of smiling has a profound impact on our emotional experience.  Smiling triggers a reduction in stress-enhancing hormones and increases the production of mood-enhancing hormones.  The same is true for frowning less: People who frown less report experiencing more positive feelings.

Fun fact: Some of this research (like this and this) is from anxiety and depression studies involving women who received frown-inhibiting Botox injections.  Accounting for any change in their feelings of attractiveness, the women were found to be happier than they were when they were physically able to frown.

These results are explained by the facial-feedback hypothesis,which suggests that physiological responses, such as smiling or frowning, are not simply consequences of an emotion but also have a direct impact on that emotion.  This hypothesis, first proposed by Charles Darwin, is key to the way we understand our own role in our emotions.  If smiling can intensify feelings of pleasure and happiness and if frowning can amplify feelings of pain or sadness, we are clued into two simple ways of consciously acting to improve our emotional experience: smile more and frown less.

Another fun fact: If you smile while experiencing pain,your feelings of pain will be lessened.  So, you might as well try smiling the next time you’re experiencing something painful, like ripping off a particularly sticky band aid. (Ew/ouch)

Even forcing a “fake” smile when you’re not truly feeling it has been shown to reduce stress and result in more positive feelings.  Fake it ‘til you make it.   But the real reward is truly feeling happier, because genuine smiles have even better stress-reducing results!

And, if you can change your own mood through smiling, you can do the same for those around you.  The facial feedback hypothesis also applies to interpersonal interaction, since, as we’ve learned, humans naturally mirror each others’ facial expressions.  By seeing others smile, we experience physiological changes that enhance our own feelings of happiness.

Consider this: You’ve just won a prestigious award for being the most awesome [fill in the blank] ever.  Would you feel happier if, as you crossed the stage to accept your award, you looked out into the audience and noticed that everyone was smiling, or if you glanced out and noticed that everyone was scowling?  Regardless of your own feelings on winning the award, your emotional experience at that moment would be affected by what you saw in the people around you.  And, what if, as you were scanning the faces of the scowling crowd, you noticed one person smiling brightly at you?  How would your feelings change?  You would probably feel somewhat better.

With the understanding that smiling makes people feel happier, whether you are the person making the smile or the person seeing the smile, and that smiling is contagious, we have a powerful tool to change our mood, our experience, and the world around us.

And, the icing on this cake:  Smiling makes us healthier, too.  Frequent, unabashed smiling has been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve the immune system, and may even reduce risk of chronic disease.

So, remember: Smiling will make you AND those around you feel happier.  In approximately 30 milliseconds.

Check out the science in your daily life

Pay attention to the facial expressions of the next few people you see or interact with.  Is their expression positive, neutral, or negative?  Look at them for a few seconds and then notice your own expression (and your feelings).  Are you mirroring what you saw?  Then, smile at these people and watch for their reactions.

 

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Melissa Stephenson
Melissa is an urban planner and healthy cities enthusiast moonlighting as a positive living blogger. She is passionate about health, happiness, and the human experience. And trying new restaurants. Melissa holds degrees in anthropology, geography, and urban planning, but firmly believes that the best lessons in life come from curiosity and the confidence to try. Check out Melissa’s new blogging project: http://thetinatimes.com/.

3 Comments

  • Suzanne says:

    Learned from DBT how to use the “half-smile” to lighten mood & it also helps the mood of people you are dealing with. If they see a pleasant countenance, they are more likely react to you in a pleasant way.

    If your facial expression appears surly, angry, snobby, etc., then watch out for the reaction you will get in return. Also, as we age our lips naturally start to downturn in their “natural” position which appears to be a sign of sadness or unhappiness or impatience–none of the good attributes you would like to express with your expression.

    Practicing the “half-smile” (which is a slight upturn; not a grin, which would send a completely different message–might look like a leer, even) takes a minimum amount of effort to make it a habit. I just naturally have a half-smile on my face unless there is some reason for a completely different facial reaction, such as hysteria; bewilderment; joy; exasperation; anger…

    https://twitter.com/sedona2222/status/498779075842801664

  • Mary Chen says:

    Great reading. It is so true. I personally have experienced it in the morning when I first look at the mirror

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