Want to improve your mood every day and make sure you wake up on the right side of bed every time you hear your alarm? The solution may be to use ‘faces’ in order to make yourself feel cheerful and to trigger the release of positive neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain.
Try putting a photo of your friends by your alarm clock and you may well notice that you feel a little bit better every day. Read on to find out why…
Humans are social creatures and are designed to live in groups. In the wild, we would have lived in tribes and there is generally considered to be an ‘optimal’ size for groups of humans living in this way (though this varies depending on geography, culture etc.). Interestingly it has even been suggested that our innate sense of morality is dependent on group size!
Thus we have evolved to be surrounded by people and faces and to get the feeling of comfort that comes from having others around us and yet today, many of us live in groups of just 2-4 and won’t really interact with others in our area outside of these family groups/partnerships. Furthermore, some of us live entirely on our own and this can very easily lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Fortunately though, the brain is relatively easy to ‘hack’ and you can trick it into thinking that you are surrounded by people simply by being in the presence of faces. Thus to your brain, waking up to see your family smiling at you is somewhat similar to waking up in an area populated by your closest friends and family and the brain chemistry is the same.
Likewise, even watching morning news might have a similar effect. The late Seth Roberts was a big proponent of ‘self-experimentation’ and was one of the big advocates of ‘morning faces therapy’. His claim was that seeing faces in the morning could improve his mood quantifiably the next day and that this could also be a potential treatment for bipolar disorder. His experiments were published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1) and there is a lot of anecdotal support for the idea.
There is another mechanism through which seeing faces might improve your mood in the mornings. Specifically, they would likely to be even more effective at increasing mood if the faces were smiling. The reason for this is that smiling faces can cause us to smile as a result of ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain. These mirror neurons appear to be the neural basis for empathy and they cause us to ‘feel what we see’ and often to mimic the expressions of others. They’re why we wince when we watch ‘Fails’ on YouTube. So seeing someone looking angry can make us feel angry, whereas seeing someone smiling can actually make us smile (2, 3).
And this in turn will then lead to something called ‘facial feedback’, wherein neurons and hormones are produced in our brain that are fitting for the expression we are pulling. In other words, forcing yourself to smile can actually make you happier whereas frowning can make you feel sad. Even just holding a pencil in your mouth – forcing your face into a smile-like shape – can be enough to trigger the release of ‘feel good’ hormones which act as natural antidepressant (4).
In short, seeing someone smile makes us smile unconsciously and this in turn causes us to automatically feel happier.
But whatever is going on, there is enough support to suggest that seeing faces makes at least some people feel better and especially if those faces are smiling. Put a photograph of your loved ones smiling at you by your bed and you might just find this gets your day off to a good start!