Cosmetic doctor, Dr Sarah Hart, wrote a blog for Mindfood magazine on using Botox for depression, a treatment based on facial feedback theory.
The facial feedback theory states that facial movement can influence emotional experience. In this case the idea was that Botox made it difficult to frown, favouring a more neutral facial expression that the brain interpreted as the message: “I’m feeling okay.”
To give another example, if you get people to imitate the facial expressions of negative emotions they feel that emotion – the brain gets the message “I’m unhappy because I’m frowning.”
To try out the facial feedback hypothesis furrow your brow, tighten your jaw, breathe more shallowly or hold your breath slightly, frown and you may experience some annoyance or irritation.
Now, bring your shoulders forward, slump in the chair, look down at the floor and see how sad you feel.
This is not a new concept. Consider this statement by Edgar Allan Poe, the poet and novelist who died in 1849 and who showed signs of becoming a psychologist:
“When I wish to find out … what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.”
As Dr Hart mentioned, you don’t need to have Botox to feel this effect.
I use this idea in my clinical practice. It is not uncommon for me to see a depressed client avoiding eye contact, looking downwards, hunched posture, with a beaten expression on their face.
I might ask them to experiment with posture and eye contact during the session and report any improvement in their mood, however slight.
I might also ask them to adopt a half smile by gently turning up her lips or holding a relaxed face. The idea is not to pretend to be happy, but rather serenely accept the way things are in the moment.
I ask people to practice this in situations that they find slightly annoying to start off with, and then as they get more comfortable with a half smile to use it in situations where more intense emotion is usually felt.
The facial feedback hypothesis, has a lot of evidence behind it.
In the 2009 book 59 seconds. Think a little change a lot Professor Richard Wiseman cites research from Bielefeld University that showed how happy people move differently to unhappy people. Wiseman suggested putting this finding to practical use by walking in a more relaxed way, swinging your arms slightly more than usual, and putting more of a spring in your step.
He also recommended increasing your hand gestures during conversations, nodding your head more when others are speaking, using a greater frequency of positively charged emotional words (especially “love”, “like” and “fond”) and a lower frequency of self references (“me”, “myself” and “I”).
One famous study asked people to hold pencils between their teeth so that the pencil was parallel to the floor (simulating a smile) or in another condition, between puckered lips (simulating the mouth expression we have when we frown) – then participants had to study cartoons and rate how funny they were. Participants rated cartoons funnier when they had were simulating smiling than when they were simulating frowning.
So how does this idea fit with the notion of being genuine about how you’re feeling?
One of the most common objections people have to the idea of using facial feedback, is that acting this way would be disingenuous. They raise a good point, and it is important to distinguish between masking feelings (when you put on a brave front and a pretend smile) versus acting effectively, acknowledging the mood you have and then choosing to do something about it – whether this is psychology or Botox.