Better Living

Science-Backed Reasons to Smile

Turning that frown upside down can do wonders for your health
BY Zrinka Peters TIMEMay 22, 2022 PRINT

You’ve probably heard the expressions “grin and bear it,” and “turn that frown upside down.” Urging someone to “put on a happy face”—or smile—is so common that these expressions reflect an intuitive understanding that donning a smile is good for us—and those around us.

Decades of research into the science of smiling also supports what so many have sensed is true—the simple act of putting on a smile—is beneficial for both our physical and mental health. The bigger the better.

Could something as simple as smiling actually lower stress levels? A study conducted by Tara L. Kraft and Sarah D. Pressman from the University of Kansas Psychology Department, and published in the September 2012 issue of Psychological Science had participants hold a chopstick in their mouths in such a way as to produce a ‘Duchenne’ (aka ‘real’) smile, a standard smile, or a neutral expression.

Among the ‘smiling’ groups, half were also asked to smile intentionally. Each participant then completed two different stressful tasks. The researchers found that those in each of the ‘smiling’ groups had a lower heart rate during the stress recovery period than those who kept neutral facial expressions, and that this effect was observed whether the participants were consciously trying to smile or not. These results showed that the simple act of smiling when under stress had a positive, stress-reducing physiological impact.

Smiling is also known to benefit overall health and longevity. Researchers from Wayne State University examined 230 photos of Major League players from the 1952 baseball register, and categorized them into three groups according to smile intensity: no smile, partial smile, or full smile. After controlling for other factors related to longevity, like body mass index and marital status, the results showed that those players with the biggest smiles lived an average of seven years longer than their nonsmiling counterparts—79.9 years versus 72.9 years. Want to raise your odds of living longer? Smiling more just might help.

Aside from its benefits to physical health, smiling regularly is a tonic for our mental health as well. Putting on a smile has been shown to improve mood, almost like a natural antidepressant. Smiling triggers a release of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters that work to relieve pain and lift moods—all without the negative side effects of antidepressant medications or pain-relieving drugs.

Smiling has benefits that go beyond the individual, too. A Swedish study reproduced in Science Direct, confirmed what so many have suspected all along—that smiling is actually contagious. Researchers had study participants look at pictures of people showing different emotional expressions: joy, anger, fear, and surprise. They then asked the participants to frown, and found that the subject’s facial expressions generally mimicked the pictures that they saw, in a process dubbed “emotional contagion.” It was especially difficult for subjects to frown when faced with a cheerful, smiling face. The takeaway? Smiling really is contagious, and it’s an easy, free way to spread positivity and cheer to those around us.

Interestingly, the benefits to both mind and body of smiling are possible even when the smile is forced, rather than spontaneous. In what scientists call the “facial feedback hypothesis,” not only do we smile when we feel happy, but the very act of smiling can actually lift our moods and cause us to feel happier. The University of South Australia’s Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, a research fellow in human and artificial cognition at the Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning, said in a press release that “In our research we found that when you forcefully practise smiling, it stimulates the amygdala—the emotional center of the brain—which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state. … A ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect.”

After two years of being surrounded by masked faces during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to put on a happy face and spread some cheer.

 

Zrinka Peters has been writing professionally for over a decade. She has a BA in English Literature from Simon Fraser University and has been published in a wide variety of print and online publications including Health Digest, Parent.com, Today's Catholic Teacher, and Education.com
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