Can You Smile Your Way to Success?

Could it be that the only thing that stands between you and success on an important project is the absence of one of those ubiquitous happy faces? Don't laugh. Researchers at two universities say they've found evidence that something as simple as a smiling face, or a picture of puppies, can elevate your mood enough to see the Big Picture.

According to their study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, it doesn't take much to push us into the realm of abstract thinking instead of getting hung up on the small stuff. Thinking abstractly, in turn, can lead to better decisions as we focus on the things that really matter, rising above the trivia that could otherwise bury us.

A better mood makes us focus on why, not how, according to Aparna Labroo of the University of Chicago and Vanessa Patrick of the University of Georgia.

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"We argue that by signaling that a situation is benign (think happy face,) a positive mood allows people to distance themselves psychologically from the situation," their study concludes. "Psychological distancing results in taking a broader perspective, or seeing the big picture," leading to "higher level thinking."

"A good mood allows you to step back and say, 'OK, maybe I have a moment of respite and I can step back and reconsider what's going on,'" Labroo said in a telephone interview. A foul mood, by contrast, is likely to force you to "focus very concretely on a specific problem" and make a short-sighted decision because you are so preoccupied with that single issue.

The researchers cite the example of "the pictures of your children smiling on your refrigerator door." That picture, they suggest, may be enough to focus your attention on the grander issues of life, so instead of handing the kids a sugar-coated treat, you give them a healthy carrot. The kids might not be too happy, but it's the right thing to do.

Labroo said they took on this project because both were interested in the issue of happiness, and how it affects judgment, and they were intrigued by the symbols of happiness that people tend to surround themselves with, like "pictures of puppies, or pictures of penguins, or people smiling." So they conducted a series of five experiments at the two campuses, all involving college students, to see how much of a role happiness can play in the decision-making process.

They found that asking a participant to recall the happiest time in his or her life resulted in a higher level of abstract thinking than recalling a sad period. Even a happy face preceding a statement helped the participants focus on the big picture.

"Of course, this is a temporary level, and it might die out after some time," but it works for a little while, Labroo said.

The study is consistent with a lot of other research indicating that happiness can have a significant effect on everything from decision-making to blood pressure.

A review of 225 studies, involving 275,000 people, published in the Psychological Bulletin three years ago concluded that happy individuals are more likely to tackle new goals than unhappy people.

"Chronically happy people are, in general, more successful across many life domains than less happy people, and their happiness is, in large part, a consequence of their positive emotions, rather than vice versa," according to that study.

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