Why Smiling Feels So Good

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I’ve never really been fully aware of my facial expressions until I recently caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I wasn’t feeling particularly gloomy or angry or even a wee bit sad. But the mirror reflected otherwise. The corners of my mouth were turned downward, and anyone who didn’t know me might think I was unhappy, unfriendly, annoyed or a combination of all three.

Why did I look so glum even though I wasn’t feeling that way? Or was I really feeling that way and just not being honest with myself?The truth of it is that gravity is pulling parts of us down, whether we like it or not, and our mouths are not exempt. The corners of our mouths simply begin to droop along with the rest of us as the years rush onward.

Maybe it’s because I just had a so-called major birthday, but these kinds of things are on my mind lately. Yeah, maybe it’s a wee bit shallow, but I’m not apologizing for caring. It’s bad enough that body parts droop, but I’d like to keep my face looking pleasant and satisfied, and apparently the corners of my mouth have a lot to do with that.

After doing a bit of online research, I found that there are cosmetic solutions for the famous corner-of-mouth-droop Botox or cosmetic fillers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to anything that makes you feel and look better, but since Botox and fillers are both pricey and temporary (in my opinion, better saved for the “bigger” issues, like crow’s feet and wrinkly foreheads), I’m convinced there has to be a cheaper way.

Onward. I stumbled on a page about doing facial exercises (aka “facercise”). All you need to do, believers say, is devote eight minutes of each day to a regimen of various exercises for your face and presto, change-o! Just like you can tighten your sagging butt with simple exercise (NOT), so can you achieve tightening and rejuvenation of your face simply by working on your facial muscles.

There has to be a better way. Aha! I got it!

Try smiling. (Am I brilliant or what??) No, really science backs me up on this. For one, smiling is contagious. It’s hard not to smile back at someone who smiles at you. And that contagion is a natural paying-it-forward, right? If more people smiled, I suspect that more people would smile. Or something like that.

For another, in times of stress, studies, have found that smiling helps mitigate anxiety and even lowers yourheart rate. Add to that the endorphins that are released when you smile (and especially when you laugh). They’re the euphoric, feel-good hormones that reduce your perception of pain.

Smiling can actually trick your body into thinking you’re in a good mood. Along with doing Kegel exercises when I’m waiting at a red light (if I remember, that is), I also try to remind myself to smile. It’s truly amazing how my mood is instantly lightened by such a simple act.

When I think about it, there really are a lot of reasons to smile and they’re not just everything I’ve just mentioned in the above paragraphs. Why did the Mona Lisa become one of the most famous paintings of all time? That’s a question an incredible amount of people have asked themselves in the past. And one possible answer is this: because of her unique smile.

The smile is is the “the symbol that was rated with the highest positive emotional content” concludes scientist Andrew Newberg. And for me personally, I’ve been very reluctant before embracing smiling. Only a few years back, when one of my teachers told me: “Why don’t you smile more? Go learn how to do it!”, I started to research learn about the actual power of smiling.

I had a brief moment of disbelief that anyone can learn how to smile better. And yet, since then, for many years, I practiced smiling in the mirror and on many other occasions. That’s a fact I’ve often been a little embarrassed to admit, yet the research of this post confirms how powerful practicing a bit of smiling can be.

After recently discussing which words matter the most when we talk, digging into the facts of smiling was one of the most mentioned suggestions. So here we go:

The science of smiling: What happens to our brain when we smile 

Let’s say you experience a positive situation and you see a friend you haven’t met in a long time. This means that neuronal signals travel from the cortex of your brain to the brainstem (the oldest part of our brains). From there, the cranial muscle carries the signal further towards the smiling muscles in your face.

Sounds simple enough right?

And yet, that’s only where it starts. Once the smiling muscles in our face contract, there is a positive feedback loop that now goes back to the brain and reinforces our feeling of joy. To put more succinctly:

“Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure-inducer, cannot match.”

Smiling then, seems to give us the same happiness that exercising induces terms of how our brain responds. In short: our brain feels good and tells us to smile, we smile and tell our brain it feels good and so forth.

That’s why in a recent research scientists Concluded “that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash.” Here is a brief description of the different muscles the cranial muscle activates in our face:

Real vs. Fake smiles can we tell the difference?

Whenever we smile, there are 2 potential muscles we activate. The first one is the zygomaticus major and it controls the corners of your mouth. Whenever this muscle only is activated, it’s not actually a genuine smile. Scientists call this also the “social” smile. The second muscle, known to show sincerity is the obicularis occuli and it encircles our eye socket.

The true smile also called the duchenne smile, named after the famous scientist who first separated the “mouth corners”-only smile, from the “eye socket” one. Here is a comparison:

Our brain can in fact distinguish very easily between what’s real and what’s fake. In fact researcher Dr. Niedenthal argues there are 3 ways we can do so:

  • Our brain compares the geometry of a person’s face to a standard smile
  • We think about the situation and judge whether a smile is expected.
  • Most importantly: We automatically mimic the smile, to feel ourselves whether it is fake or real. If it is real, our brain will activate the same areas from the smiler and we can identify it as a real one.

Niedenthal then experimented with how important it is to be able to mimic smiles and whether we could still tell the genuine smiles from the fake ones:

Dr. Niedenthal and her colleagues asked the students to place a pencil between their lips. This simple action engaged muscles that could otherwise produce a smile. Unable to mimic the faces they saw, the students had a much harder time telling which smiles were real and which were fake.

So the fact that we can’t try it for ourselves, leaves us almost unable to identify any smile as fake or real. Why is this so important though to know what and what doesn’t trigger us to understand smiling? Here are some more insights:

What smiling does to our health, success and feeling of happiness

Smiling can change our brain, through the powerful feedback loop we discussed above. And your brain keeps track of your smiles, kind of like a smile scorecard. It knows how often you’ve smiled and which overall emotional state you are in therefore.

Smiling reduces stress that your body and mind feel, almost similar to getting good sleep, according to recent studies. And smiling helps to generate more positive emotions within you. That’s why we often feel happier around children – they smile more. On average, they do so 400 times a day. Whilst happy people still smile 40-50 times a day, the average of us only does so 20 times.

Why does this matter? Smiling leads to decrease in the stress-induced hormones that negatively affect your physical and mental health, say the latest studies:

  • In the famous yearbook study,they tracked the lives of women who had the best smiles in yearbook photos compared to the rest. Women who smiled the most lived happier lives, happier marriages and had fewer setbacks. Here is a sample of the women from the observed yearbook. I let you guess who was successful and who wasn’t
  • The baseball card study also found a clear correlation between how big a smile someone made on a baseball card photo and how long they would live. The people who smiled the most turned out to live 7 years longer than those who didn’t.

Of course, the above only shows a correlation, and not a causation. And yet, I can’t help but agree that smiling breeds trust, makes you happier and helps you to live longer.

And most importantly, smiling can be learnt. Or to put more precisely, re-learnt. Most of us forget how to smile genuinely over time, as we adopt social smiles more and more

Whether you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, picked a fight with a loved one or struggled through that morning commute to a job you don’t particularly enjoy, it can be a tough task to plaster a smile across your face when you’re feeling less than chipper.

But by choosing to smile, happy changes start to occur automatically, both internally and externally. Great power lies in a random smile, so long as you choose to share it with the world.

More 11 reasons why it’s worth showing those pearly whites daily even when you don’t necessarily feel like it.

Smiling can improve your mood.

Our facial expressions do more than communicate our current mood — they have the ability to influence our mood as well. Emotions may originate in the brain, but the muscles in the face either reinforce or transform those feelings. Recent studies have revealed that through the enhancement of positive emotions — or the suppression of negative ones — with facial expressions, a person’s mood begins to align more strongly with the emotion his or her face is communicating.

Even fake smiles do the trick.

While some researchers insist the benefits of smiling can only be rendered from a geniune expression of happiness, others have found that a forced smile can still make you feel happy, even when your existing mood and surroundings suggest otherwise. It only takes smiling for a brief period of time to experience its benefits — no matter how contrived it feels initially. In this case, maybe it’s OK to fake it a little.

Smiling helps reduce stress.

In a 2012 study published in the journal Psychological Science, University of Kansas psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman studied 170 participants who were told to hold chopsticks in their mouths in three formations, making them smile to various degrees without realizing it, after performing a stressful task.

The experiment revealed that subjects who smiled the biggest with the chopsticks experienced a substantial reduction in heart rate and quicker stress recovery compared to those whose expressions remained neutral.

Smiling makes you more approachable.

A 2004 Penn State University study found that authentic smiles shared by employees in the service industry influenced their impressions on customers in a positive way. Smiling employees came across as more likable and friendly, and customers left the interactions feeling more satisfied about their overall experience.

While job performance and the busyness of the venues were also factored into subsequent experiments, the researchers found that the added display of an authentic smile helped workers appear more competent as well.

A smile makes you seem more trustworthy.

From a psychological perspective, a person who is smiling appears more trustworthy than a person who is either frowning or holding a neutral expression. In a University of Pittsburgh study, researchers explored the potential connection between a model’s level of attractiveness, the intensity of her smile and her perceived level of trustworthiness. Study participants ranked 45 models on these three conditions, revealing that the bigger the models smiled, the more trustworthy they seemed.

Smiling actually retrains your brain for the better.

While the brain is naturally inclined to think in negative terms as a defense mechanism, the habitual act of smiling helps the mind move to a more positive space and remain there longer the more you do it. According to Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, by making smiling a part of our everyday practice, we help our brains create happiness loops that encourage more positive-thinking patterns.

“Happiness is a work ethic,” wrote Achor. “It’s something that requires our brains to train just like an athlete has to train.”

Smiles are contagious.

Ever notice how often a friend or colleague will reciprocate a smile after you share one? There’s a scientific explanation for that phenomenon. According to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, we all posses something called mirror neurons, cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex that are activated when we perform a given action as well as when we witness someone else performing it. And when it comes to smiling, mirror neurons respond to the acts of both seeing and doing.

“The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to ‘simulate’ the intentions and emotions associated with those actions,” Iacoboni told Scientific American. “When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile.”

Smiles may strengthen the body on a cellular level.

Just as this happy facial expression helps rid the body of stress, smiling can release tension on a cellular level as well, according to biochemist and artist Sondra Barrett. In her book, Secrets of Your Cells, Barrett explains how cells can distinguish between safety and danger, find and repair problems and create an overall sense of balance within the body. She also highlights how a person’s thoughts have a direct effect on cell function.

When we smile, we reduce the rigidness of our cells, and this physical relaxation can help combat the risk of stress-induced cell mutations that can lead to the development or persistence of various cancers.

Smiling boosts your productivity.

The benefits of putting a grin on your face at the office don’t begin and end with a mood boost; that dose of happiness can help make you a more productive employee as well. In 2010, a team of economic researchers found that happiness has a significant and causal effect on productivity in the workplace. And just as the positive emotions prove invigorating, negative ones are equally draining.

Smiling makes you more creative.

This same mood boost can get those creative juices flowing. A 2013 study from the University of California, San Francisco explored this connection in men and found that those who were happier had a more comprehensive approach to problems, improving their ability to think of more solutions than their negative-minded counterparts. The researchers connected this finding to the release of dopamine triggered by happiness, since the neurotransmitter is involved in learning, processing and decision-making.

Smiles are free.

This all-around mood booster is one of the few available to you each day at no cost whatsoever. So why not take advantage of your own power to create happiness?

Here are 10 things that made me smile today:

  1. The sun is shining.
  2. The weather is still warm (even though it’s mid-October).
  3. I am healthy.
  4. I’m immersed in doing what I love.
  5. I had a killer workout at the gym.
  6. I made myself a homemade soy latte with my new Keurig Rivo machine and saved both a trip to Starbucks and over $4! If I continue to do this daily, I’m $28 richer for the week, $112 for the month, and $1,344 for the year! I’ll recoup the cost of the machine ($199.99) in no time.
  7. I just spent a wonderful week celebrating my birthday with family and longtime dear friends.
  8. I took a lovely and fragrant bubble bath.
  9. I talked to my mom and exchanged emails with my children and husband.
  10. I will get a chance when I’m finished working to go outside and take a walk.

OK, now it’s your turn. If you tell me what makes you smile, you’re bound to make me and everyone else reading this break out into one big smile.

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