In 2012, entrepreneur Ron Gutman, now co-CEO of healthcare company Intrivo, gave a TED Talk titled “The Hidden Power of Smiling,” which went viral. Synthesizing empirical work from neuroscience, social psychology, and longitudinal studies on happiness and success, the talk hit a sweet spot for the TED audience. It offered a productive life hack and scientific insight that could be understood in the span of a seven-minute speech.
Turns out Gutman’s hypothesis was prescient. Current research backs up his thesis that “whenever you want to tap into a superpower that will help you and everyone around you live a longer, healthier, happier life — smile.” His discussion has been viewed over 6 million times and remains as relevant as ever.
The appetite for these simple life hacks has only increased in the 10 years since Gutman’s talk as we continue to adjust to an information-saturated era of rapid technological and social change. But ironically, the elegance of a life hack can sometimes be its Achilles heel. While we want simple, scientific solutions, the world is a messy place, and science is nuanced.
This irony has felled other TED speakers. Perhaps the most high-profile example is psychologist Amy Cuddy’s work on “power poses.”
In another viral TED Talk Cuddy argued that consciously implementing confident body language, even when we don’t feel confident, can boost feelings of confidence and improve our chances of success. The research supporting Cuddy’s talk has been the subject of ongoing controversy within the social psychology community, with mixed results in attempts to replicate its findings.
In the years since Gutman’s talk, scientists have replicated findings that smiling is beneficial across a range of areas of human health and social life. However, there have been a few notable outliers, and in 2022 researchers sought to get to the bottom of the power of smiling once and for all.
The result is a massive study by The Many Smiles Collaboration, a multi-lab, international research group consisting of leading scientists in areas such as neuroscience, emotion research, and medicine. The collaboration is focused on providing robust, preregistered, and replicable scientific findings on the facial feedback hypothesis, which claims that subjective experiences of emotion are influenced by facial expressions such as smiling.
In an October 2022 study published in Nature Human Behavior, The Many Smiles Collaboration found that data on 3,878 participants spanning 19 countries indicated that facial mimicry and voluntary facial action can both amplify and initiate feelings of happiness.
According to the study, Gutman appears to have been right when he explained the power of smiling on the TED stage.
Ron Gutman and the “Power of Smiling”
Ron Gutman followed up his TED appearance with a digital book expounding on his research: Smile: The Astonishing Power of a Simple Act. Mirroring his talk, the book’s central thesis is that smiling can have a “transformative effect on our lives,” with the potential to positively impact our physical and mental health, our relationships, and our overall happiness.
Gutman supports this claim by drawing on various examples of empirical research that investigates the effects of smiling.
In a longitudinal study discussed in the book and in Gutman’s talk, researchers studied photos of individuals from a high school yearbook and tracked their lives over the course of 30 years.
“By measuring the students’ smiles, researchers were able to predict how fulfilling and long-lasting a subject’s marriage would be, how well she would score on standardized tests of well-being, and how inspiring she would be to others,” explained Gutman to the TED audience.
And Gutman addresses research on the facial feedback hypothesis directly.
For example, he explains a German study in which participants were injected with Botox to temporarily suppress their ability to smile. Using fMRI brain scans, researchers found that those with suppressed smiles experienced less activity in an area of the brain associated with emotion modulation and reward mechanisms.
“British researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate,” added Gutman. “The same study found that smiling is as stimulating as receiving up to 16,000 pounds sterling in cash.”
Another study, conducted at France’s University of Clermont-Ferrand, asked participants to bite a pencil to hinder their ability to smile. It found that participants with a suppressed ability to smile were worse at identifying whether the smile of another person was genuine or fake, indicating that mimicking a smile helps us better understand the emotions of others.
Conversely, in another facial feedback study, participants who held a smile by keeping chopsticks in their mouth experienced increased positive emotions and decreased negative emotions.
The Many Smiles Collaboration
These last few examples, in which the facial feedback hypothesis is tested by artificially manipulating a person’s facial expression, were the subject of The Many Smiles Collaboration’s detailed meta-analysis and novel research.
In its report, the authors explain that they collaborated to “(1) specify our beliefs regarding when facial feedback effects, if real, should most reliably emerge; (2) determine the best way(s) to test those beliefs; and (3) use this information to design and execute an international multi-lab experiment.”
Despite some of the authors’ initial skepticism on the replicability of facial feedback studies, the collaboration ultimately found that the mere act of a posed smile can improve a person’s mood.
“The stretch of a smile can make people feel happy and the furrowed brow can make people feel angry; thus, the conscious experience of emotion must be at least partially based on bodily sensations,” said the study’s lead author, Stanford University researcher Nicholas Coles, in a university release.
Prior to the study, Coles was unsure about the validity of the facial feedback hypothesis, but after conducting a 2019 meta-analysis analyzing several facial feedback results, including some of those referenced by Gutman, he decided it was worth a more thorough test to find out.
The result was the Nature Human Behavior study: “A multi-lab test of the facial feedback hypothesis by The Many Smiles Collaboration.”
“Rather than quibble and debate over Twitter and through journal articles, which would take decades and probably not be that productive, we said, ‘Let’s just come together and design something that would please both sides,’” said Coles. “Let’s figure out a way that we could potentially convince proponents that the effect isn’t real and potentially convince critics that the effect is real.”
Researchers divided the thousands of participants into three groups and directed each group to use a different method to mimic a smile: the pen-in-mouth method, mimicking facial expressions from photos of smiling actors, or lifting the cheeks and moving the corners of the mouth.
Each of these groups was further divided into two subgroups. The first subgroup was shown cheerful images, such as puppies, flowers, or fireworks, and the second was shown a blank screen. Each subgroup was asked to perform physical tasks and math problems to disguise the study’s goal, then rate their happiness levels.
There was a significant increase in self-reported happiness levels of individuals who posed a smile in both the positive image and blank screen conditions, indicating that the mere act of smiling had a causal impact on mood.
In other words, the effect that Gutman touted as transformative over a decade ago appears to be real, with an established link between the physical act of smiling and the emotion of happiness.
That link is, to use Gutman’s phrase, the power of smiling.