Can You Smile Your Way to Success?

A better mood helps us focus on the big picture, researchers say.

November 18, 2008, 8:13 PM

Nov. 19, 2008— -- 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.

"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.

"Our review provides strong support that happiness, in many cases, leads to successful outcomes, rather than merely following from them," author Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, said in releasing that study.

A number of studies have linked happiness with good health, although it is less clear which comes first there. Health is one issue that can have a major impact on personal happiness, but many people seem happy even when confronted with a crippling or life-threatening disease. How can that be?

Some studies insist that happiness is largely independent of our status in life. Australian psychologists studied 900 twin pairs and said earlier this year that they had identified common genes that resulted in distinct personality traits and a predisposition for happiness. Thus, happiness has its roots in our genes, if this study is right, although the various predicaments we find ourselves in can also contribute significantly. It's hard to keep smiling if you're broke, lonely and sick, for example, even if you have the right genes.

And there is some evidence that our level of happiness does not remain constant throughout our lives. We get happier as we get older, according to a University of Chicago study published last April in the American Sociological Review. That study was based on interviews with at least 1,500 people from 1972 to 2004 by the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, supported by the National Science Foundation.

That study found that the happiest people in the country are in their late 80s. Honest.

The happiest people on the planet, however, appear to be in Denmark, which has ranked first among 178 nations for 30 years in life satisfaction surveys. The University of Leicester has produced a "world map of happiness" showing that Switzerland, Austria, Iceland and the Bahamas follow, in that order, after Denmark. The United States ranks 23rd, and the strife-torn East African country of Burundi is at the bottom of the list.

Why are those Danes so dang happy? The study suggests that Danes have low and realistic expectations for the coming year, so they are not likely to be disappointed.

But can something as simple as a happy face have much of an impact? Maybe, if it helps us concentrate on the Big Picture.

"By seeing the big picture," the new study says, you "should be better able to perceive the benefits of engaging in activities that provide long-term rewards, consider future activities more important than immediate ones, and adopt whichever abstract goal is accessible." It might not last long, but it probably doesn't hurt to try.

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