Can Tai Chi Increase Happiness? – Facial Expression

tai chi increases happiness

[pullquote align=”right”]Doing Qi Gong and Tai Chi Increases Happiness.  That’s just a fact.  But so do funny movies.  So what can be occurring during internal practice that leads to happiness? [/pullquote]








My aim in writing these articles is to increase the number of people who benefit from the internal arts and to deepen the rewards experienced by those who have already begun.

In this essay I will:

  1. Provide research related to your facial composition  and how tai chi increases happiness
  2. Show how one additional focus during and outside of practice will enrich your life

The Inner Smile – A part of History

Tai Chi Increases Happiness

Dating back hundreds of years we have been instructed on the on the importance of making facial expressions. Statues, texts, and instructions on how to hold our face have accompanied meditative practices throughout the millennia.

The term “Inner Smile” is used in specific meditations where the practitioner smiles and then moves his intention to internal processes such as organs, the digestive system, and the spine.  Basically, “smiling down” into the body.  This is not an active mental process used during the tai chi form but the benefits of a relaxed “happier” face helping to improve your emotional state.  I use the term “inner smile” loosely in this article to separate a smile with internal, restful concentration from just a regular unintentional smile.

How do I properly smile?

tai chi increases happiness

Instructions are simple and practice makes it a habit.  When practicing, we don’t want to adopt an overzealous look of sheer bliss unless you crave solitude.  You don’t want to be “that guy” in the park. Simply:

Relax the forehead, specifically the brow point which constricts when angry or concentrating, soften the eyes, and retract your cheeks back as though they are heading towards a smile.

Tai Chi Increases HappinessConcentrate on trying to hear a sound that is right behind your head.  There you have it, your inner smile.

Detailed instructions can be found in Mantak Chia’s book: Awaken Healing Energy Through The Tao: The Taoist Secret of Circulating Internal Power

Modern Research Supporting the Power of the Smile

Tai Chi Increases Happiness

James Laird , a researcher in the 1960s, produced research to answer the question of whether we were happy because we smiled or smiled because we were happy.  An emotional chicken-or-the-egg paradigm.  Volunteers were led to believe that they were participating in a study about electrical activity in the face.  Fake electrodes were placed on the foreheads and cheeks.  Participants were asked to move the electrodes on the forehead together and on the cheeks down (frown) or electrodes on the cheeks back (smile). They then rated their emotions.  Volunteers tricked into smiling were significantly happier.  Several more studies came about that corroborated Laird’s results:

  1. A study at the University of Michigan used photography as a cover story taking pictures of people saying “ee” or “ooo” to exemplify cheer or disgust.  Those who said “ee” (cheese) were happier.
  2. Psychologists at Washington University attached golf tees to participants eyebrows and asked them to move them down and together (unhappy) or keep them neutral. The neutral group rated itself as happier.
  3. German researchers told groups that they were studying responsiveness and attentiveness of people who had to manipulate objects with their mouths because they could not use their hands.  Group 1 held a pencil between their teeth with their cheeks and lips pulled back.  Group 2 held the pencil with their lips constricting the face.  They then rated cartoons for how funny they were.  Guess who found the cartoons more funny?  Constricting your face decreases your enjoyment. 

In each instance, James Laird’s results were proven genuine.  Ratings of happiness or emotional state after each exercise always favored the smile.  Physically manipulating your face into a happy expression caused happiness. Basically, actively producing a smile creates an inner smile.

How the Inner Smile Affects your Life.

Tai Chi Increases Happiness

Tai chi should be respected for both its simplicity and complex nature.  Every small aspect of performing the form has dramatic results.

Our goal is to excel at the tai chi form or whatever internal work we do.  We do also want the benefits gained during practice to generalize outward and positively affect our life.   Practicing a smile during the form, or during your meditation, or in your car makes it a conscious habit.  This keeps us happier more frequently and gives our body a learned emotional state that matches a learned physical posture.  By smiling when you really need it, you will be more quickly returned to the emotional state that you desire.


tai chi increases happinessHere is a really interesting book that highlights William James and his original thoughts on “movement causes emotional response” that lead to physiology driven research.  It is a fun and digestible read.  Two tablespoons of interesting, hold the stuffiness.    The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life by Richard Wiseman

Koch, Sabine C. (2011).  Basic body rhythms and embodied intercorporality: From individual to interpersonal movement feedback.  In W. Tshacher & C. Bergomi (Eds.)  The implications of Embodiment: Cognition and Communication (pp. 151-171).  Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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