Smiling Alone

The poor man's painkiller?
The other day, I was rummaging around on Deric Bownd's MindBlog looking for some fun stuff on pain tolerance and I stumbled on this article that explored the relationship between laughing and pain.

To ruin the punchline, the authors found that laughter significantly elevated pain tolerance in a number of contexts.  What's more, the researchers do a decent job controlling for mood to tease out if the act of laughing, rather than good-feelings that come with laughing, explained the effect. It does.  In other words, the very act of laughing resulted in an increased pain tolerance, not "being happier".

This reminded me of the classic cause and effect conundrum: the act of smiling may boost mood.

Then I had the following thought: when I'm alone, I'm rarely smiling or laughing.  I did a little experiment and observed my own smiling/laughing behavior when I was alone and was even more bummed when I realized that I'm rarely smiling, grinning, chuckling, or tittering when I'm by my lonesome.

Instead, I'm normally "concerned" about something and wearing said concern on my face: a poker face, a scowl, a furrowed brow.

This is bad news, because as the above research suggests, I may be contributing to my own bad moods.  It is intuitive to think that our mood will dictate our external displays of our mood: we smile because we are happy.  That may be true, but some research suggests that the relationship may extend in the other direction.  The act of smiling may make us happier.

So I tried it: whenever I feel a little too serious (and I'm alone), I start grinning like an idiot.  And, it works.  I've found that if I start being goofy, I cannot stay in a bad mood.  This is great news, because often a bad mood is the number one killer of my work ethic.  If you read the above laughing-pain paper, the authors mention that laughter occurs most readily in a group, so the best way to get a mood boost is likely to be around a group of happy people.  However, sometimes we must be alone, so anything I can do to bump up my mood, I'll take it.  Even if it means smiling at nothing at all.  I'm strange.

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