Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Smiling, laughter, and happiness

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Smiling, laughter, and happiness:
What is the effect of smiling and laughter on happiness?
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Figure 1. Being Happy has an affect on your entire life.
  • How can smiling and laughter have an affect on happiness?
  • Seligman and his theories - positive psychology
  • Personality and Happiness
  • Happiness is a mental or emotional state - the processes involved in the brain
  • What are the benefits of smiling and laughing?


What is it?[edit]

The definition that the dictionary gives for the word happiness is "the state of being happy"; the definition for happy was "feeling or showing pleasure or contentment". The Greeks used the term eudaimonia to refer to happiness which means 'the good life' rather than just an emotion to be experienced. Aristotle explained eudaimonia to being true to one's inner self and according to this view then for someone to find true happiness they must find their own values and nurturing these values and living life by those values (Aristotle, 2000). The concept eudaimonia actually links in with the many definitions of happiness within psychology. Often when reading about happiness in psychology it is often accompanied with phrases of well-being, life satisfaction and positive psychology. Seligman (2005) said that positive psychology is an broad term for the studying of positive emotions and positive character traits. The idea behind positive psychology is to uncover the understanding of the human life experience, the highs, the lows and everything in the middle to give a better understanding of both suffering and happiness and ways in which we can increase happiness and reduce suffering (Seligman, 2005).

The role of personality in happiness.[edit]

Trait theory basics[edit]

Trait theory is based upon words we use to describe ourselves and those of people around us. Traits are considered to be emotional, cognitive and behavioural tendencies which are the foundation of individual personalities. The most commonly referenced trait theories were developed by Hans Eysenck, he developed three overarching psychological traits: extraversion-introversion, neutoticism-emotional stability and psychoticism-impulse control (Burton, Westen & Kowalski, 2016). Generally speaking Extroversion as a trait means to be sociable and willing to take risks this is in contradiction to introverts, which are the opposite and are characterised by social inhibition, seriousness and caution towards activities. Neuroticism generally refers to the emotional stability of an individual and categorises people high in neuroticism with feelings of anxiousness, guilt, generally low self-esteem and moody. Finally, his third overarching personality trait of psychoticism would describe people with a high level as aggressive, impulsive and antisocial. People with low psychoticism are considered to be more empathetic and are able to have impulse control (Burton, Westen & Kowalski, 2016).

The big 5[edit]

From Eysenck's work the five factor model was developed, where all the personality traits were consolidated into five overall personality traits, which are: Neuroticism, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness.

Figure 2. Extroversion as a trait means to be sociable and willing to take risks.
Table 1. The five factor model and its facets - Burton, Western & Kowalski, 2016
Nueroticism Extroversion Agreeableness Conscientiousness Openness
Anxiety Warmth Trust Competence Fantasy (active fantasy life)
Angry Hostility Gregariousness Straightforwardness Order Aesthetics (artistic interests)
Depression Assertiveness Altruism Dutifulness Feelings (emotionally open)
Self-consciousness Activity Compliance Achievement Striving Actions (flexible)
Impulsivity Excitement seeking Modesty Self-discipline Ideas (intellectual)
Vulnerability Positive emotion Tenderness Deliberation Values (unconventional)
  • Brebner, Donaldson, Kirby and Ward study 2017 - found that the basic personality structures affect the ability to be happy or not. They found that Neuroticism was negatively associated with happiness measures, Extraversion is positively related. The happiness measures together accounted for approximately 15% of the variance when predicting Psychoticism.

Cross cultural happiness[edit]

  • Study in 1999 by Furnham & Cheng looked into cross cultural happiness between Britian, China (Hong Kong) and Japan. Britian showed higher levels of happiness, mental health and extraversion than both China and Japan. Their correlational analysis in the three countries showed that extraversion was a major correlate of happiness, whereas neuroticism was shown to be a correlate of mental health (Furnham & Cheng, 1999).
  • The study by Agbo & Ngwu, (2017) had 238 participants (124 male and 114 female) university graduates from a Nigerian University and they were aged from 16 to 35. They measured happiness through 7 positive emotions and 8 negative emotions to account for positive affect and negative affect respectively. Personality was measured through a shortened version of the big-five inventory, consisting of 10 items. Fear of happiness was assessed using the universal fear of happiness scale (UFHS, Joshanloo et al., 2013). What they found was that the relationship between fear of happiness and the actual experience of happiness is not only controlled though culture, but is influenced by the different personality traits. They propose that when theorising and modelling about the fear of happiness that personality needs to be taken into account when viewing evidence (Agbo & Ngwu, 2017). When they examined the 5 personality traits and the affects it has on someone experiencing positive emotions. They found that people with higher levels of extraversion, openness to experience, and conscientiousness undermined the effect of fear of happiness on positive affect and that people with higher levels of agreeableness and neuroticism increased the effect (Agbo & Ngwu, 2017). They also say that with the exception of extraversion that the fear of happiness was positively associated with negative affect with the other four personality traits. They go on to say that cultures with a more communalistic way of living can require restraint to avoid offending people. Agbo & Ngwu (2017) explain that in certain cultures negative emotions like guilt and shame are both encouraged and socially expected as a part of their way of their interdependent and conformity derived society.

The brain and its role in happiness[edit]

Figure 3. Dopaminergic pathways in the brain.

The brain generates wants, urges, appetites, needs, rewards, cravings, desires, pleasure, feelings, mood and a full range of emotions (Reeve, 2015). Generally speaking the motivated and emotional brain consist of an outer cortical brain and an inner sub-cortical brain. The cortical brain deals with the cognitive processes of goals, plans and strategies; which are conscious and deliberate actions (Reeve, 2015). The sub-cortical brain on the other hand deal with unconscious functions attributed to by basic urges and desires which are emotion based (eg. hunger, thirst, desire, reward, anger, fear, etc) (Reeve, 2015).

Table 2. Motivational and Emotional Function of the 16 specific brain structures - Reeve (2015)
Brain Structure Motivational or Emotional Function
Sub-cortical Brain
Reticular Formation Arousal, alertness, wakefulness
The Amygdala Detects, learns about, and responds to the stimulus properties of environmental objects, including both threat-eliciting and reward-eliciting associations.
Basal Ganglia Motivational modulation of movement and action.
Ventral Stratum and Nucleus Accumbens The brain's reward centre. Responds to signals of reward (dopamine release) to produce pleasure and liking.
Ventral Tegmental Area Starting point in the brain's dopamine-reward centre. Manufactures and releases dopamine.
Hypothalamus Responsive to natural rewards in the regulation of eating, drinking, and mating. Regulates both the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system.
Insular Cortex Monitors bodily states to produce gut-felt feelings. Processes feelings associated with risk, uncertainty, personal agency, and sense of self.
Cortical Brain
Prefrontal Cortex Making plans, setting goals, formulating intentions. Right hemispheric activity is associated with negative affect and "no go" avoidance motivation, while left hemispheric activity is associated with positive affect and "go" approach motivation.
Orbitofrontal cortex Stores and processes reward-related value of environmental objects and events to formulate preferences and make choices between options.
Ventromedial prefrontal cortex Evaluates the unlearned emotional value of basic sensory rewards and internal bodily states. Responsible for emotional control.
Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex Evaluates learned emotional value of environmental events and possible courses of action. Responsible for control over urges and risks during the pursuit of long-term goals.
Anterior cingulate cortex Monitors motivational conflicts. Resolves conflicts by recruiting other cortical brain structures for executive or cognitive control over basic urges and emotions.

Positive psychology[edit]

Figure 4. Dr Martin Seligman and General W. Casey Jr.

Seligman's positive psychology[edit]

Dr. Martin Seligman (2009) defined the meaning of happiness into three branches distinct from each other. The first is Hedonic: Positive emotion (eg. love, joy, pleasure). Hedonic as most people would think about it would consider the term to mean 'feeling good' which is a rather simplistic terminology, the deeper psychological meaning that life is focused on as much of these positive emotions as possible, also can be called the 'Pleasant Life' (Jayawickreme, Forgeard and Seligman, 2012). There are shortcuts that will lead you to positive emotion (Seligman, 2009). Shortcuts can include: listening to music, watching television, taking drugs and even masturbation can lead to a positive emotion.

The second branch is called 'Engaged Life' and is centred around the concept of flow, or in more modern terms "in the zone". The way in which can be fully immersed in an activity that there are no thoughts or feelings present or that time seems to stop (Peterson, 2006). There are no shortcuts to achieve flow however; flow can only be achieved when you are achieving challenges you strive to achieve on your own (Seligman, 2009). Peterson, (2006) mentions that flow should not be confused with sensual pleasure and says that flow is non-emotional and is considered by many to be an unconscious action.

The third branch of the meaning of happiness is the "Meaningful Life". This branch is achieved through our connections with others and what strengths you have as a person and using them to serve a purpose higher than the self (Seligman, 2009)

How do you measure happiness?[edit]

A few terms have come about over years of studying positive emotions and are used as indicators of happiness. These terms are: Quality of life, Subjective well-being and Life satisfaction (Peterson, 2006).

  • Quality of life

Quality of life is more of a umbrella term which includes all of the emotions, various experiences, achievements and expectations which are a factor in living a 'good' life (Peterson, 2006).

  • Subjective well-being

Subjective well-being is the term used for a narrower focus on high levels positive affect, when there are lows levels of negative affect and that the overall perception that the life the individual is leading is a good one (Peterson, 2006).

  • Life Satisfaction

Life satisfaction is often used as the best measure for 'happiness' as it remains more stable over time but still remains sensitive to allow for changes in different life circumstances (Peterson, 2006).


What is it?[edit]

Figure 5. The Duchenne marker - crinkles around the eyes and the lifting of the cheeks

A smile is can be considered to be one of the most common signals in which to display positive intentions (Krys et al., 2015). The smile as characterised by Ekman & Friesen (1978) as an upward turning of the corners of the lips, which has been formed through the contraction of the zygomaticus major muscle. Neidenthal et al. (2010) found that there were three types of smiles which have important functions; enjoyment, affiliative and dominance smiles. To explain in greater detail an enjoyment smile consists of a spontaneous smile when experiencing pleasure or success (Ekman 2009). Affiliative smiles are for the formation and strengthening of social bonds. Finally dominance smiles are like the name suggests and can reflect things like social status, control, scheming, proud smiles, which contain very different physical similarities with those of the other two categories. Interestingly enough Chang and Vermeulen (2010) said that you could only tell the difference between enjoyment smiles and affiliative smiles based upon the contextual environment rather than on physical characteristics themselves. Ekman (2009) found 18 different types of smiles but did propose that there could be as many as 50 smiles.

Sincere and Insincere smiles[edit]

Researchers have found that there are both sincere and insincere smiles. Sincere or true smiles are categorised as the involuntary reactions for positive emotions and as opposed to this insincere or false smiles are smiles which are used to convey a positive emotion even though the positive emotion was not felt (Neidenthal et al., 2010; Peterson, 2006). In other words an insincere smile actually disguises negative feelings. Various morphological and dynamic markers have to found in order to distinguish between the two types of smile. The most common indicator for a true smile is the Duchenne marker, named after Duchenne de Boulogne, who conducted research on facial expressions (Neidenthal et al., 2010). The Duchenne marker consists of the contraction around the eye with the orbicularis oculi. The orbicularis oculi casuses the cheeks to lift, the eyes to become a narrower opening and create crinkles around the eyes (Peterson, 2006). This when combined with the zygomaticus major contraction, is often considered to be suggestive of positive emotion. Those smiles which do not contain the Duchenne marker are considered to be the false or masking smiles (Neidenthal et al., 2010).

Figure 6. Smiles are contagious.

Laughter and laughter theories[edit]

Laughter Theories[edit]

Laughter has been narrowed down into three hypotheses in order to be able to to explain laughter. They are the superiority theory, incongruity theory and the relief theory (Caruana, 2017). However, more recently there have been calls from psychologists and anthropologists to add a social bonding theory as a fourth hypothesis of laughter (Caruana, 2017).

  • Superiority Theory

The Superiority theory says that laughter is caused by a feeling of superiority over others (Caruana, 2017). Superiority humour can be seen as laughing at another persons deficiencies and can also be shown as self-derision (Lynch, 2002). Superiority theory goes back as far as Plato and Aristotle, who wrote about humour in the form of mockery (Lynch, 2002).

  • Incongruity Theory

The Incongruity theory is about our appreciation of something which violates our expectations (Caruana, 2017). Another way of explaining the incongruity theory as finding something that it irrational, illogical, inappropriate, paradoxical, false or incoherent as funny (Lynch, 2002). Lynch (2002) describes incongruity humour is a way to interpret ambiguity.

  • Relief Theory

Relief theory is all about the releasing of nervous energy in the form of laughter (Caruana, 2017). It can also be seen as face-saving behaviour in order to reduce tension between people (Lynch, 2002).

  • Social Bonding Theory

Social bonding theory has grown in popularity over recent years and has had many psychologists and anthropologists agreeing that it should be the most predominant theory of laughter (Caruana, 2017). They say that laughter is a means for social bonding and communication and to strengthen these social ties (Provine, 2000; Dunbar, 2012).

Is laughter really contagious?[edit]

Humans like primates use physical contact or grooming in order to create a social bond or to maintain a social structure amongst each other (Dunbar & Shultz, 2010). From the results of Dunbar's study in 2012 that the endogenous opioid release after laughing with others would create a neurochemical pathway which would support a long-term relationship between humans and be able to live in large social groups.

One study examined the effects that laughter had upon the brain and where that effect took place. Manninen (2017), examined whether laughing results in an opoid release and if it does where does this occur within the brain. The participants looked at humorous video clips with two close friends in order to help stimulate spontaneous social laughter. After viewing these clips the participant underwent a PET scan, and a control PET scan was also collected 30 minutes after when the participant had been left alone in the testing room (Manninen, 2017).What the results found was that social laughter increases the opoid release in the anterior insula, the anterior cinguate cortex and posterior cingulate cortex, and also within the basal ganglia and the thalamus (Manninen, 2017). The study gives support for the social-bonding theory of laughter and that laughter will strengthen the social ties to others.


Tickling is one of the most common ways in which to invoke laughter, it is a playtime in which both humans and chimpanzees take part in (Provine, 2004). Provine (2004) goes on to mention that tickling probably came about from a reflex defence mechanism which would have protected the surface of the body from external parasites or predators. You are unable to tickle yourself but you can be by others, generally can be seen as a form of affection either to give or receive (Provine, 2004)

What a smile says about you?[edit]

  • Smiles have been shown to inspire trust between people
  • Studies have also shown that women tend to smile more often then men (LaFrance et al., 2003) and due to gender stereotypes they have a greater expectation for them to smile (Brody & Hall, 2008).
  • studies have shown that smiles make you more attractive

Health benefits of laughing and smiling[edit]

  • Laughter is a full body exercise and it engages muscles and at the same time releases rushes of endorphin's into the bloodstream. Endorphin's are the body's stress release hormone. It has also been called the pain killer hormone as endorphin's are the body's natural pain reliever.
  • smiling makes you more attractive

Quick Quiz[edit]

Here are some example quiz questions - choose the correct answers and click "Submit":


What is the name given for the most common facial marker for detecting between true and false smiles?



How many muscles does it take to smile?.

1 to 4
5 to 53

For more information, see Help:Quiz.

Figure 7. Enjoy the little things...

Effects of Smiling and Laughter and how it can lead to a happier you![edit]

  • Reducing Stress
  • Releasing hormones which act as pain killers
  • Maybe adding in a table here to show different hormones and how they help relieve stress
  • Laughter Therapy?
  • Laughter Yoga?


  • What are the take-home messages?

See also[edit]

Synthetic Happiness (Wikiversity)

Positive thinking as a cause of emotional problems (Wikiversity)

Personality and happiness (Wikiversity)

Passion and wellbeing (Wikiversity)

Brain (Wikipedia)

Happiness (Wikipedia)

Dopamine (Wikipedia)


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External Links.[edit]