A Smile Goes a Long Way

By Haleh Kouchmeshki, PsyD

At the core of our existence lies the deep desire to CONNECT. Research suggests that exchanging a smile creates a strong sense of familiarity – even with a complete stranger. It is argued that smiling is the outward expression of happiness and provides a pathway of connecting with others. According to experts, babies give momentary smiles at birth, a survival instinct similar to other newborn reflexes, making them more appealing, an evolutionary mechanism that increases the likelihood of their safety and survival.

In the 19th century, the prized American psychologist, William James, proposed that our facial expressions and other bodily emotions are not the consequence of our emotions, but rather, the cause. POSITIVE energy is given off when we smile – it is the physical act of smiling that creates a sense of joy. There is evidence to suggest that smiling can enhance our mood. This idea, that the simple act of smiling can cheer us up, dates back to Darwin’s facial feedback hypothesis. Psychologists at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that women whose ability to frown was compromised as a result of Botox injections were happier and showed less emotional activity in their brains.

So what are the neuronal mechanisms that take place when we smile? Imagine a situation that evokes a sense of pleasure, like running into your best friend at your Monday night yoga class. As you envision this, neurons in the brain fire and cause muscles in your face to contract – and a smile is formed. Next, the smile muscles send feedback to the brain, further reinforcing the feelings of happiness by stimulating our reward system, and increasing our “happy hormones” or endorphins – creating an ongoing positive feedback loop. Smiling stimulates the brain’s reward system in a way that even chocolate – a highly deemed pleasure inducer – cannot match. British researchers found that ONE smile smiles can create the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 chocolate bars!!

Thus, Darwin’s Facial Feedback Response Theory, provides evidence of the common saying “FAKE IT ‘TIL YOU MAKE IT!” So the simple act of smiling actually DOES make us feel better.

You may be thinking, “I can’t fake a smile.” Then just surround yourself with people who smile often. Have you ever wondered why being around children, who smile frequently (as many as 400 times per day in contrast to happy adults who smile approximately 40-50 times daily) makes you smile more? Studies conducted in Sweden at Uppsala University confirmed that viewing others smiling actually overpowers the control we have of our facial muscles, convincing us to smile. So smiling is extremely CONTAGIOUS!

Smiling has even been shown to provide incredible health benefits! In 2012, Psychologists at the University of Kansas tested the link between smiling and the reduction of stress. They found that putting a smile on your face could help reduce stress hormone levels (cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine), increase health and mood enhancing hormones (endorphins), and lower blood pressure.

In sum, smiling creates a healthier mind and in turn a healthier body! So if you want to help yourself and others live a longer, healthier, happier life – SMILE and allow yourself to feel the wonderful benefits occurring in your mind and body!