Better Mood – Fake It to Make It

I saw something on the Today Show about a week ago that really piqued my curiosity.

Apparently there is a school of thought called embodied cognition that believes our brains rely on our faces and posture to determine how to feel.

Now, I could go either way on this. On one hand, it sounds a little bit like those folks that say, (when I’m in a funk), “just smile and act happy and you’ll feel better,” but this isn’t a concept that I can entirely discredit.

There have been times where I have worked long retail hours while in a particularly nasty state when I’ve managed to eek through by forcing myself to smile at customers. I generally call this the fake it to make it route. By the end of my shift, I often found I was smiling genuinely instead of just faking it and felt slightly better.

Did I feel better from smiling? I don’t know. I might have felt better from working and having something else for my mind to focus on, moving around, getting out of my apartment, or being around other people. But the smiling didn’t hurt.

That said, I don’t think I believe anyone in depression can just will themselves out of it, because if they could I’ve definitely been talking to the wrong people. Small improvements in mood certainly don’t hurt though, and I am always looking for new ways to bump things up a bit.

The part about the segment I found the most interesting is that they talked about something called “positions of power”.

The idea is that when we are feeling closed off, our posture illustrates that feeling. I know it sure happens to me, hunched shoulders, protected chest area, and I get really tense. I will sit in an area as small as possible, arms clenched as snugly around me as I can. Apparently, this is telling my brain I am under threat, that I am submissive to whatever is going on, and that I need to be closed off. Research suggests that these small, closed off postures can actually decrease the amount of energy we have.

The suggestion on the show was to do the opposite. Arrange your posture so that you are in a “position of power” -a pose that feels dominating and powerful.

Think back to cartoons, movies, -Wonder Woman standing with her hand on her hips, the business executive sitting behind his desk with his feet up and his hands folded behind his head, or the cool guy on the bus with his arm stretched on top of the seat next to him relaxedly.

The idea is that these poses all take up a lot of space, which tells our brains that we are in a position of power and we create more testosterone. In turn that means more confidence and energy.

At first I scoffed at this a little bit, but as I sprawled casually on the couch I did detect a certain haughtiness ebbing into my being.

And really, is it so far fetched? Sure there was research to back it up, but just think about what Yoga does for people in terms of posture, helping mood, and relaxation. This isn’t exactly a new idea in that sense, it just might not have been anything we were particularly conscious of.

I’d like to ask everyone to play around with this idea a little bit. If you find yourself balled up somewhere over the course of the day, try spreading out and see if you feel any different. And if you’re walking down the street listening to your ipod, try smiling at the next person that passes and see if you feel any friendlier. I’m genuinely curious to see if this makes a difference for anyone else!

You can, of course, check out the article here as well.

6 responses to “Better Mood – Fake It to Make It

  1. Sounds like that along with ‘muscle memory’ – smiling, standing up in a tall posture etc. — there is a mood memory that goes along with that muscle configuration or act.

  2. As a server, I have to so A LOT of faking it. I hate having to put on my “fake face” as I call it. But like you, I always end up feeling better…and who knows the reason(s) why. I’m sure there is some truth behind that article!

  3. Pingback: DBT Week 6 « Disorderly Chickadee

  4. Ok, part of it is me being skeptical, but I also had a philosophy professor who taught graduate seminars on embodied cognition. So, with that caveat, most of what I know is through the lens of philosophy. Still, some research was presented.

    A lot of what was found was that by utilizing the motor neurons, one can influence cognition. I do this myself when dealing with mathematics and symmetries. I often use my hand to pantomime movements to understand how a shape or group moves. This is particularly helpful in three dimensional geometry. But all the research shows is that motor neurons influence elements of cognition in task and memory by action, so there is a task that is done in different methods, using different motor systems, the outcome of the task can change. Action is key to embodied cognition.

    The paper that influenced this is here: and I have my doubts. First of all, while they achieved a p<.01 for the psychological evaluation, they only managed a p<.05 for the testosterone and cortisol. That's statistically significant, but almost always warrants another study to confirm the results. (The actual results of the tests were also not published, big no no in my books)

    Additionally, it's an uncontrolled study. That is, they did not relay any possible effects that something like better breathing might be able to do. The openness of the stances enables better breathing, that might be the only thing that's happening and it wasn't accounted for. Nor did they test it against better breathing to see what was better at reducing stress. It might be that two minutes of calm deep breathing through your nose is better at reducing stress and might have other endocrine results. And they also did not account for reactivity to stress, just present cortisol levels, so there's no knowledge that these people are better off at handling stress, or any enhancement in cognition or problem solving (like the Today show claims). The most interesting thing is that there was an increase in risk taking behavior (which might not be good for answering emails). And there are no behavioral tasks that people are tested on to see if they improve or stay the same.

    In the end, since it's uncontrolled, I give this study a C. It has some interesting results, particularly with the testosterone, but with no controls, we cannot say anything about stress levels. And it doesn't go nearly as far as it needs to in order to perform the inductions that they're claiming. Also, the author's credibility is clearly in doubt as they make public claims beyond their study, i.e. cognition. Embodied cognition is real and is interesting, but this study requires a lot more work before it's worthwhile to recommend any actions on.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      As a rule I never take anything too seriously that I see on daytime television, lol, but I am always interested in these sorts of theories that people come up with. Personally, I say (proven or not) if it makes a difference for someone, keep doing it!

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