Does Smiling Create Happiness? – The Science Behind Your Smile Part 5


If an authentic (Duchenne) smile is caused by feeling happiness and joy, can smiling alone create these same good emotions in the brain? Paul Ekman joined with Richard Davidson, one of the world’s experts on the neuroscience of emotions, to study what happens in the brain when a persons makes a true smile. Davidson’s work has shown that positive emotions are associated with the activation of the left frontal cortex of the brain, while negative emotions are associated with activation of the right frontal cortex [1, 2]. 

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To study the smile, Ekman and Davidson conducted an experiment with a group of women who watched four short films, two positive (one of puppies playing and one of monkeys playing) and two negative (of an amputation and third-degree burns). Their facial expressions were videotaped while they watched the films and brain activity monitored. From the videotapes, Duchenne smiles were distinguished from all other smiles and then correlated with activity in their brains. They found that the true enjoyment smile was associated with significant activation of the left frontal portion of the brain, the same part of the brain activated during positive emotions [3].   This landmark research made the connection between the true smile, the brain, and happiness.

But even this research is plagued by the chicken or egg problem. Which came first, smiling or feeling happy? Could the act of smiling itself, in the absence of a reason to smile, make a person feelDoes Smiling Create Happiness? – The Science Behind Your Smile Part 5 good? Ekman and Davidson teamed up again to try to find out which comes first. For this experiment, they found students who were able to produce a true enjoyment smile on command and hold that smile for at least 20 seconds. This group was quite unusual in that less than 20 percent of the population can voluntarily contract the lateral portion of the orbicularis oculi, otherwise known as the eye crinkling muscle. The brain activity of these students was measured while they made enjoyment smiles versus social smiles (zygomatic (cheek raising) movement only). Ekman and Davidson found that the act of voluntarily making a Duchenne smile, even with no emotional trigger, activated the left frontal portion of the brain – the very same part of the brain activated during emotions of happiness, contentment, and joy. They suggest that just the act of smiling changes the brain and activates the areas of positive emotion and can create happiness on its own [4].


  1. Davidson, R.J., Hemispheric asymmetry and emotion, in Approaches to emotion, K.R. Scherer and P. Ekman, Editors. 1984, Erlbaum: Hillsdale, NJ. p. 39-57.
  2. Davidson, R.J., et al., Frontal versus pariental EEG asymmetry during positive and negative affect. Psychophysiology, 1979. 16: p. 202-203.
  3. Ekman, P., R.J. Davidson, and W.V. Friesen, The Duchenne smile: Emotional expression and brain physiology: II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1990. 58(2): p. 342-353.
  4. Ekman, P. and R.J. Davidson, Voluntary smiling changes regional brain activity. Psychological Science, 1993. 4(5): p. 342-345.
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