How To Trick Yourself Into Happiness – Even When You Don’t Feel Happy

How To Trick Yourself Into Happiness - Even When You Don't Feel HappyThe rain was lashing down. I was out in the street, walking. No umbrella. I had my rain face on. You know the one. Where it scrunches into a grimace to meet the rain. Everyone else was wearing the same face so I know you do it too.

Then I wondered to myself “why?”

The rain face, with its tight, unhappy mouth has no logical point.

It doesn’t help with the rain. The rain still fell. I was no dryer for the grumpy visage. So I did something else instead.

I grinned.

Some people looked at me quizzically as they passed. Who is this lunatic smiling widely in the rain?

Their frown and my smile were just as bad at shielding us from the weather. But my smile felt better.

I have been thinking a lot about smiles lately. Smiles are an international language. An inter-historical language too.

Human beings from across the globe and across time have smiled. Even when we see people who are different from us in every conceivable way, we see them smile and we understand.

It was strange that smiling made me feel happier. Wasn’t it meant to be the other way around? I understand that when I feel good, I smile. Yet here I was reversing the process.

In fact, it’s not so unusual. Scientists now know that smiling makes us feel good. You may have heard of the famous pencil experiment.

Scientists asked people in two separate groups to hold a pencil in their mouths. The first group held the pencil sideways, forcing an unwitting smile. The second group held the pencil by the end, making a smile more difficult. The first group felt better as a result.

It seems that smiles and happiness have a circular relationship. We can start the happiness engine at either point in the circle. We needn’t wait for good moods. Smiling, even for no reason, ushers them in.

I’ve been experimenting with this. I call it smile meditation. Here’s how it works.

I choose to spend a long time deliberately smiling as I go about my day. For instance, if I go on a twenty minute car journey, I smile the whole way.

Here’s what I’ve noticed while I do it. I feel happier. I feel calmer. I feel kinder to others. I don’t feel irritated by other drivers in the way I sometimes can. I feel more peaceful. Life feels nicer. I feel more loving. I drive slower.

The important thing is not just to smile with your mouth, but to crinkle your eyes too. Try it yourself and you’ll see what I mean. Begin by just smiling with your mouth. You will feel little change. Now crinkle the eyes too. Your smile will widen. You’ll also feel something happen inside. It feels good.

Smiles are free and available at any time. Shouldn’t we use them more than we do?

Smiling impacts our future too. Scientists at the University of Virginia studied the Facebook profile photos of college students. They identified who was just smiling and who was smiling broadly.

Three years later, they checked their happiness levels. The fulsome smilers were happier than the ordinary smilers.

The suggestion is that people who smile have happier futures. This may be true, but I wonder if something else is at play here too.

Whenever we log on to our Facebook account, we see our own face looking back at us. The photo that we chose to be our main profile photo is always there. Throughout our interactions, there it is. It is the version of ourselves that we see most often.

Could it be that seeing myself smiling broadly gives me a self image that I am a happy person, and lead me to make it so?

It’s likely. Here’s why.

Stanford University is doing some unrelated research around the topic of Virtual Reality.

They want to know how virtual reality affects parts of our personality, like compassion or willpower.

One of their experiments is about the effects of “vicarious exercise.” Can we become more likely to exercise by watching something exercise on our behalf?

The test subjects watch a video game of their avatar doing exercise. (An avatar is just a computer character that represents you on the screen.)

Some subjects watched their avatar running on a treadmill. Others watched their avatar standing around doing nothing. The first group later exercised for an hour longer than the others.

When they saw their avatar be active, they were more active. Perhaps when I see myself smiling broadly on Facebook, I become happier too.

Interestingly, the experiment only works if the avatar looks like the participant. If it’s any old avatar, there is no effect. It has to look like you.

What looks more like you than your Facebook profile photo? Your Facebook photo is the best likeness avatar possible. Rather than modelling exercise, it models mood.

But maybe everyone smiles on their Facebook photo. After all, isn’t that what people do when getting their photo taken. “Smile!” shouts the photographer, and everyone does.

So I looked.

I have 690 Facebook friends. It’s not a bad sample. I made a list of everybody who was smiling in their photo. The results astonished me. Only 36 of the 690 were smiling.

That’s just 1 in 20. And of those, only 1 in 5 could be regarded as smiling broadly.

And guess what. I wasn’t smiling either!

So as well as doing some more deliberate smiling practice, I’m giving my Facebook page a makeover too. I’ve just taken a selfie where I’m smiling broadly. By the time you read this it will be my new Facebook profile.

Smiling for long durations makes us feel happy.

Seeing ourselves smile broadly on Facebook programs us to be happy into the future.

Both work. Both are free. Neither take any time. Why not give them a go?


Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice

2 thoughts on “How To Trick Yourself Into Happiness – Even When You Don’t Feel Happy”

    1. Thanks Cat. I hope they help. I already am enjoying looking at my own face beaming back at me on Facebook. My last pic was pensively quizzical. Al x

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