New Book: Botox Makes You Happier Because It Keeps You from Frowning

If you can't frown, the logic goes, it makes you less unhappy. But maybe we're just crying on the inside.

Mar 11 2013, 4:55pm

There’s a new idea making the rounds about Botox—that funny little version of botulism poison we inject into our faces to make us look “younger.” It says that using Botox can improve our mood, make us less depressed, less angry.

But we aren’t happier just because we think we look better when we use Botox (and, by the way, a lot of the time we don’t). According to a new book by dermatologist Eric Finzi, The Face of Emotion: How Botox Affects Our Moods and Relationships, it's partly because Botox freezes our frown muscles.

The idea stems from the longstanding theory that physical expressions of emotion, for as much they signal internal processes, also act as a tail that wags the psychological dog. Darwin believed that suppressing expression tempered emotion, and one of psychology’s founding fathers, William James, argued around the turn of the last century that a person does not cry because he or she is sad, but is sad because of crying.

Controlled research since then has demonstrated that doing things like faking a smile by holding a pen between your teeth, for example, can make you feel happier. A very recent study out of Harvard and Berkeley showed that faking confident body language for two minutes in a lab setting can actually increase testosterone levels by 20 percent and reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

Hence the logic to Finzi’s idea. If Botox temporarily makes it so a person can’t frown, maybe that person will feel happier. Finzi didn’t come up with the theory on his own. A study using MRIs from five years ago suggests (albeit with a small study sample) that the temporary “botulinum toxin-induced denervation of frown muscles” attenuates activation of the left amygdala and the parts of the brain stem associated with expressing emotion. In other words, faking it till we make it in our emotional lives works, and Botox essentially helps us fake it.

But emotions are complicated things, and they don’t arise in vacuums. In real life, we have to interact with other people, and those other people are often what provokes our emotions. Just because we can’t frown doesn’t make us incapable of suffering when someone treats us like garbage. As psychologist Jay Watts argues for The Guardian, Finzi’s argument is “based on a very simplistic understanding of emotion.” He elaborates:

Within the laboratory, a face with a frown may be read as quickly as an angry one, yet our real-world experiences of each other are nearly always in interaction. Our brains pick up cues of how someone else might be thinking and feeling on a second-by-second basis. We do not see a couple of frown lines, a couple of furrows and process "sad face", "happy face" but rather pick up cues from a mixture of facial expression, gait, voice cadence, posture, context, eye movement, as well as the fantasies and projections we bring with us to every social exchange.

Inwardly unhappy? Only her psychiatrist knows for sure.
Image via Blah Blah Blog

And there’s another problem, Watts argues. People who use Botox often look very strange. Their crow’s feet say 50 but their waxen cheeks say 20. Emotionally, maybe their eyes say “angry” but their frozen mouths read vapid bliss.

According to the uncanny valley theory, we humans tend to recoil when something seems almost human, but not quite. And there’s no telling how that reflexive horror will affect a Botoxed person—a person who, at minimum, has demonstrated a kind of basic insecurity by simply getting the procedure.

As Watts notes, “If the work is good, we may not know explicitly what is wrong, but we sense instantly that something is awry.” We treat them differently as a result, he adds. “This, of course, generates its own paranoia: ‘Does he know?,’ ‘Is she treating me differently?,’ ‘Can people tell?’”

Which is probably the last thing a person who’s already getting Botox needs. One can imagine how exacerbating those feelings of insecurity could create a vicious cycle of Botox use, like obese people and overeating.

We’ve all seen Hollywood horror stories. But Botox use is more mainstream than ever. In 2011, doctors administered 5,670,788 botulinum toxin procedures, according to the American Society for Plastic Surgeons (ASPS)—a five percent increase over the year before. Prospective users can even “test-drive” their Botox procedures ahead of time with online tools that give you some idea of what you may look like post-treatment.

It’s frightening to imagine we’re all this is leading. Frankly, I’m glad I can still frown about it.

Lead image via Plus Size Kitten