How A Pen Can Make You Happy, According To Science (No Writing Involved!)

September 4, 2020

“Fake it ’til you make it!” is a principle I live by. Whether I’m being thrown into a soirée with strangers, or navigating a new scenario in work, this mentality has saved me time and time again.

There’s a fine line to walk when we’re faking it, though. We must straddle the realms of being able to think quickly on our feet, while not hesitating to ask for help if we need it. It’s about admitting what we don’t know while expressing our desire to learn. We must rise to the challenge (because hard work often pays off) and be willing to step out of our comfort zones.

Did you know that we can fake it ’til we make it when it comes to boosting our mood too? The reports are in and scientists have pinpointed some of the mechanisms underlying the one simple trick we’re discussing today. All you need is a pen or pencil. It’s really as easy as that.

Place a clean pen or pencil (though I suppose you could use a make-up brush too) horizontally between your teeth, as if it were a delicate rose stem (sans the seduction.) It feels a little weird and you might start drooling, but can you feel how the muscle movement mimics a smile? This is our faking it.

You actually don’t need the pen or pencil, but gently biting down on something keeps our expression in position for longer, which is useful if you’re distracted with something else like an angry email.

What’s happening here is muscle memory; when our muscles tell our brain we’re happy, we’re more likely to see the world in a positive light. This action stimulates the amygdala, a region of the brain that plays a key role in our emotional response. Our brain then signals to the rest of the body, telling it what mood we’re in. The experiment was trialled among participants with the pen (well, it was actually a pencil) between their lips instead of their teeth and it was found that the difference in positive mood shift was less significant. Ergo, the bigger the smile we make during this exercise, the better.

Evidence suggests that facial expressions like smiling affect areas of the brain involved in social cognition. We think about the role that emotions play in social interactions and this makes sense. So, perhaps the smilier you are, the more sociable you’re likely to be? Studies show this to be true, with a 2019 investigation suggesting that social states influence real-world interactions by changing our subjective evaluation of the social environment. Can a smile change your perception? It appears so.

It goes further than facial expression alone. It has been shown that walking style, too, affects our ability to recall either positive or negative memories. In a 2015 study, subjects were instructed to adopt traits of either a depressed or jolly stroll. The ability to recall positive words was much higher in happy walkers, as compared to negative word recall higher among depressed walkers. Does depression make us walk poorly, which then further fuels our depression? Or, are poor walking habits making us depressed? It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario!

There are other tools for boosting mood too, such as laughter therapy. Similar to holding a pen between our teeth, the idea with laughter therapy is that the action we’ve faked transitions into something that’s real. In laughter therapy, we force ourselves to produce a big, belly laugh (which feels quite awkward at first) and before we know it, we’re actually laughing. I once attended a laughing workshop with a room of 14 strangers and left feeling high as a kite, with a sore face and abdominal muscles. It was worth it.

Laughter therapy has been shown to decrease anxiety, improve quality of life in cancer patients, and promote feelings of wellbeing in the emotionally-distressed. It’s another perfect example of faking it ’til you make it.

In a time of great uncertainty, I think most of us can use all the mood-boosting goodness we can muster. It’s not always easy to allocate time in our busy schedules for a sprint around the block, soothing yoga session, or meditation. These are things that we know are good for us, but can be difficult to squeeze in. While I’m of the belief that we should all strive to be more mindful (because most multi-tasking is inefficient), some days we need to simply give ourselves a break and do the smallest measurable act of self-care. When these days strike, remember this tool. Give yourself a pick-me-up whenever you need it—no training required.

Have you tried this trick? If so, tell us!

Also by Kat: Science Says Siestas Make Us Smarter. How To Nap Your Way To Success

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Photo: Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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