Weird but it Works–How to Feel Better


Many years ago, I had pneumonia. For three months, I spent almost all of my time inside my apartment. I was always exhausted, and my chest hurt every time I took a deep breath. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a banner time for my mental health. I realized one night that I couldn’t remember the last time I smiled.

I had to do something, and I remembered reading about an experiment that studied the effect of smiling*. Participants were split into two groups and asked to judge pictures of strangers’ faces. Group A looked at the faces while they held a pencil in their teeth, not touching their lips (which caused them to smile). Group B looked at the same faces while they held a pencil in their lips, not touching their teeth (which caused them to frown). The experiment was repeated with a new set of faces, except this time, Group A held the pencils in their lips and Group B held the pencils in their teeth. Neither group was told what the experiment was about.

The results were a win for smiling. Group A voted the first set of faces significantly more friendly and trustworthy than the second. Group B, however, voted the second set of faces as significantly more friendly and trustworthy than the first. The difference, it seems, was in the participants’ faces, and not in the faces they were judging. Smiling, scientists concluded, isn’t just something you do when you’re in a good mood; it can actually make you feel better.

And so I gave it a shot. I put a pencil between my teeth and forced my face into a smile for five minutes. I rested, then did it again for another five minutes. It worked. It really, really worked. I felt better, and that evening I put on a comedy album and laughed harder than I had in as long as I could remember.

Things are difficult now for a lot of people, and many of the students I tutor have admitted to feeling depressed. The ongoing pandemic and political polarization are stressful, and studies have shown that social media – which almost all of us are addicted to – only makes things worse. If you realize that you’ve been in a bad mood for a while, and you want to change that, try smiling practice. I know it seems ridiculous – I really do – but it worked for me, so maybe it’ll work for you, too.

To your success!

*Experiments on the effect of smiling were first done by Fritz Strack and colleagues and published in 1988. You can read the abstract here. Strack’s experiment has been replicated with poor results, with some concluding that his findings are incorrect. An Israeli experiment found that theses replications deviated from the original experiment in a crucial way. You can read the abstract of that experiment here.

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