Can smiling trick your brain into happiness?
There’s a simple yet powerful tool we are born with. We all possess it, yet some of us don’t know how to use it or practice it much. It’s fully accessible and literally under our noses.
It’s a habit that could better our personal and professional lives. One that can help us be happier more often, stay connected with others, and studies show it can make us potentially healthier, too.
With over eight billion people in the world today in 650 countries and almost 7,000 living languages spoken, every one of us on earth at any age can relate to this universal sign of happiness: a smile.
Research shows that a mere 25-30% of us smile 18 to 20 times a day, happier people report 40 to 50 smiles, and children average between 400 to 500 smiles per day.
So why are we holding back? The findings below might make you realize that not only will a smile ignite positive feelings, but it might even spare you a trip to a doctor.
Medical research is now looking into the benefits that smiling has on our physical and mental health and the feedback is worth a grin.
Dr. Isha Gupta, a neurologist from IGEA Brain and Spine, explains that smiling spurs a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing certain hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. “Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness and the release of serotonin is connected with reduced stress. Low levels of either of these are associated with depression and aggression,” she says.
Simply put, a smile has the power of boosting your well-being and tricking your brain into a blissful state.
Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion.
It could sound like an obscure backward flip notion. Happiness is usually what makes us smile, so could the reverse do the same? Let’s find out.
In-depth work at Kansas University shows that the mere act of smiling can lift your mood, lower stress, boost your immune system, and possibly even prolong your life.
“What’s crazy is that just the physical act of smiling can make a difference in building your immunity,” says Dr. Grossan, ENT-otolaryngologist from Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “When you smile, you are using 53 muscles in your face, the brain feels this activation and assumes that humor is happening.”
He strongly believes that our brain is connected to our immune system. “It has been shown over and over again that depression weakens your immune system, while happiness has been shown to boost our body’s resistance.”
Fake it until you make it
Can you trigger happiness by smiling for no reason? Experts say, absolutely!
The well-known phrase “Fake it until you make it” can now be part of our wellness journey. “Even forcing a fake smile can legitimately reduce stress and lower your heart rate,” adds Dr. Sivan Finkel, a well-known cosmetic surgeon in NYC.
“Proverbs such as ‘Grin and bear it’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” says Dr. Tara Kraft, a psychological scientist at the University of Kansas. Smiles are generally divided into two categories: standard smiles, which use the muscles surrounding the mouth; and genuine or duchenne smiles, which engage the muscles surrounding both the mouth and eyes.
Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion. However, the work of Kraft and Dr. Sarah Pressman is the first of its kind to experimentally manipulate the types of smiles people make to examine the effects of smiling on stress itself. Their findings with a group of 170 students from Midwest University showed that smiling during brief stressors, such as writing a legible paragraph with a non-dominant hand or immersing their feet in ice-cold water, could help reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually felt happy at that specific moment.
In short, smiling can trick your brain into believing you’re happy, which can spur actual feelings of joy, thereby reducing stress, pain, and discomfort. Smiling overrides these feelings. In a way, our brain is a sucker for a grin. It doesn’t bother to sort out whether you’re smiling because you’re genuinely joyous, or you’re just pretending; regardless, the effects on your brain and body will be positive.
Several benefits have been attributed to this uplifting facial expression. Let’s look at a few:
Longevity. Smiling triggers optimism, good vibes from the people you live with, and approachability from those who don’t know you. Optimism is highly linked to longevity. One study from Wayne State University suggests those who genuinely smiled lived five to seven years longer than those who did not. Researchers found that the most optimistic men and women had an 11-15% longer lifespan and 50-70% better odds of living passed the age of 85.
It can lift you out of a bad mood. Scientists have found that smiling on purpose can help people feel better. Just the simple act of putting a smile on your face can lead you to feel actual happiness, joy, or amusement. Smiling on purpose changes brain chemistry. So it can be a big help to people who are dealing with depression and anxiety.
If you’re smiling on purpose to help your mood, you’ll want to smile until your cheeks lift and you feel your laugh lines crinkle. You can see how it feels by holding a pencil horizontally between your teeth as you smile. Try it.
Reduces stress. Since body language and mood are so linked, it makes sense that smiling can help us feel serene. Smiling relaxes the facial muscles and calms the nervous system, sending more oxygen to the brain, which in turn triggers the release of brain chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals help us feel positive. A simple exercise from Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh can help you tap into the benefits of smiling. As you breathe in, say to yourself: “Breathing in, I calm my body and mind.” Then, as you breathe out, think: “Breathing out, I smile.” By repeating this simple breathing exercise several times, you’re relaxing your nervous system and countering stress.
Helps you bond with others. Smiling sends a friendly signal that usually results in the other person smiling back. One important purpose of smiling might be that it creates social bonds. Scientists have even found that we connect in a physical way when we share a smile or a positive emotion.
Smiling reduces pain. Smiling releases endorphins, other natural painkillers, and serotonin. Together, these brain chemicals make us feel good from head to toe. Not only do they elevate your mood, but they also relax your body and reduce physical pain. Smiling is a natural drug.
Makes you more attractive. We are naturally drawn to people who smile. While more severe or negative facial expressions effectively push people away, smiling is seen as more attractive and youthful. The muscles we use to smile also lift the face, making a person appear younger. As Dolly Parton said in the movie Steel Magnolias: “Smiling increases your face value.”
Helps you stay positive. Smiling can influence your feelings of positivity, even if it feels unnatural or forced. Regardless of whether or not your smile is genuine, it still sends the message that “Life is good!” to your brain and, ultimately, the rest of your body. Try this test: Smile. Now try to think of something negative without losing the smile. It’s hard, isn’t it?
Suggests success. Research has shown that people who smile regularly appear more confident are more likely to be promoted, and are more approachable. Try putting on a smile at meetings and business appointments. You might find that people react to you differently and the results might be to your advantage.
It shows you care. A smile can change a difficult moment for a loved one or bring a sense of hope to a total stranger. It can make a sick person feel loved or comfort a child after a difficult day in school.
So the next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you “grin and bear it” psychologically—it might also help your heart health.