In the video below, Dr. Matsumoto chose to address a question submitted to us for National Smile Month: How can smiling boost one’s mood? This is actually true, and smiling helps boost our mood by interfacing with central physical and emotional processes in our brain.
Dr. Matsumoto describes these emotional processes as sort of a central command system which controls both the physical and psychological sides of our reactions. When we perceive something that triggers emotions, this central command then activates both types of reactions. One of these physical manifestations are facial expressions like smiles.
So, when we smile, we begin to activate that process. This tells our central command system that a part of our body is having an emotion that corresponds with that smile. This then activates similar processes related to smiling and associated emotions.
It is almost as though the smile tells our brain that something is wrong. We are smiling but not feeling happy, which isn’t how that relationship should work! Instead, the body can respond by actually making us happier, trying to correct the incongruence between emotion and smile.
He continued by elaborating on the idea of “emotional contagion.” Sometimes when another person is smiling, we will subconsciously find ourselves smiling and becoming happier. This can even happen when we look at advertisements! Thus, the social and emotional contagion can augment or start this same process of actually making us happier.
This need not work for everyone, but since 1980 this phenomenon has been studied by psychologists and found to be relatively common. This has even led empirical psychologists to use this as a technique to induce emotional reactions among participants.
Yet, in a word of caution, this would be very unlikely to counteract a strong countervailing emotion, like deep sadness. For instance, Dr. Matsumoto has found that people with depression will not be able to induce such a feeling of happiness.