The absolute worst sound in the world is your own dumb voice; this is a scientifically verified truth. And yet a weirdly fascinating recent paper suggests there is, sometimes, an upside to hearing your own dumb voice. In this study, published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, after people heard themselves sounding happy, they then became a little bit happier.
Researchers from Sweden, France, and Japan asked about 100 people to read an excerpt — out loud — from “The Second Bakery Attack,” a story in Haruki Murakami’s collection The Elephant Vanishes. As they read, they listened to themselves reading the short story through a headset. The trick, however, was this: The scientists had created a program that would digitally alter people’s voices in order to make them sound happier, sadder, or more anxious than they truly were. The alterations were subtle — just a shift upward in inflection here and there to make a voice sound happier, for example — and most of the study volunteers didn’t detect anything strange. (Those who did were not counted in the analysis.)
Before and afterward, the participants filled out surveys to measure their moods, focusing mostly on how happy, sad, anxious, or relaxed they were feeling. But after the story-reading exercise, the unsuspecting volunteers reported a change in their emotion — one that corresponded to the version of their own voice they’d just heard. Those who heard themselves sounding happy were a little happier; those who’d heard themselves sounding sad were a little sadder; and those whose voices sounded frightened reported feeling more anxious.
It is not a perfect study; for one, there was no control group. But the scientists write in their paper that this helps explain the scientific understanding of research like the smiling pen study. You know the smiling pen study, don’t you? Here, you can do it yourself at your desk: Hold a pen in your mouth. First, do this with your lips. Then, hold it between your teeth. The latter is supposed to activate the very same facial muscles you use when you’re smiling — which should make you feel as if you are smiling and not just sitting at your desk, holding a pen between your teeth for no reason. And this, in turn, should put you in an all-around brighter mood.
This line of research argues that your emotions are something like a two-way street. Yes, you smile because you’re happy. But it also works the other way around: You become happy after you smile. (The “stand like Wonder Woman to feel more powerful” research grew out of this, too.) Psychologists who study this argue that people use their actions and outward behaviors to at least partially understand their internal states — their moods, emotions, or beliefs. This new study suggests that perhaps this is true for the sound of our own voices, too.
The catch, though, may be this: It works best if you aren’t doing it on purpose. A 2014 study found that some people reported less happiness the more they smiled; for that matter, a recent replication of the power-posing study questioned the efficacy of the Wonder Woman stance, too.
Although the mood manipulation did work on the people in this new study, it’s certainly worth noting that they didn’t know it was happening. So there is little evidence as of yet to suggest that if you force yourself to speak in a cheery tone that you will then become cheerier.