The Science Behind Smiling
By Jamie Reynolds, M.D.
In case you haven’t noticed, the world is messed up. Like crazy messed up. And, as human beings, most of it is our fault. Crazy nuclear-obsessed dictators. Hyper-divisiveness in the American political system. Bigotry. Suicide bombers. Children unsafe at schools. The rich getting richer. The poor getting poorer. Social-media bullies. Cancer. TMZ. The list goes on…
And, just for good measure, mother nature decides to visit us with a record polar vortex and a flu season that affected millions more than normal (including yours truly). Not to mention the fool that cut you off in line for your latte this morning, or a million other of life’s trivial annoyances that get our blood pressure out of control. It is a wonder any of us are remotely sane.
Or is it? If you listen to a guy like Gary Vaynerchuck–and if you don’t you should–he correctly rants that we as human beings live in the greatest time to be alive in the history of humans. And even though life seems and is challenging, we have never collectively had it better.
Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago where the world was much more like Game of Thrones and a lot less like spoiled brat reality TV. And, as annoying as Honey Boo Boo and everything ‘Housewives’ seems to be, humanity continues to trend up.
So what can we do to realize and appreciate what we have? Most of us have little influence in the goings on of the world. However, my belief that if we each make a small effort to treat each other a little better, our lives will continue to improve. Something as seemingly insignificant as a smile can brighten people’s day.
Remember, it is really difficult to be around people who are smiling without smiling. Why? There is actually a mountain of interesting science behind it.
In one of my favorite studies of all time, researchers (Kraft and Pressman) used chopsticks to position people in various facial expressions then put them through a series of stressful tasks.
The people whose face was positioned into a smile had the lowest stress of any group.
So, even if you don’t smile on purpose, the act of positioning your face into a smiling posture actually decreases stress.
‘Fake it till you make it’ actually works here! The next time someone cuts you off in line, try forcing yourself to smile. Science says it will actually reduce your stress level.
Naturally smiling also creates a cascade of naturally occurring feel-good neurotransmitters to be released automatically. Seretonin, dopanine, and endorphins–the same hormones we artificially stuff into the ever increasing amount of happy pills Americans digest on a daily basis–are naturally released every time you smile. Free happy hormones. No trip to the doctor or prescription required.
What about for the uber career-focused people who are in too big of a rush to snap a smile at Starbucks?
A 2004 study from Penn State showed smiling employees come off as more friendly and likeable (not surprising) and also increased perception of competence (surprising!!!).
Smiling frequently gives people the perception that you are better at your job!
Another study from the University of Pittsburgh compared people with various smile postures, and the bigger the smile the higher the person was graded on trustworthiness (again, surprising!).
So, science suggests that if you want to be seen as more competent and more trustworthy–factors that weigh heavily in any boss’s performance evaluation–you should smile more.
And, just in case the scientific case for smiling wasn’t strong enough, a recent Harvard study found ‘social connection’ is directly linked to happiness and longevity. The more people in your social network, the more likely you were to live longer. What is the number one way to increase social connections you ask? Smiling. Live long and prosper, smile grasshopper.
My challenge to you: Get a sharpie. On the mirror in your bathroom, write the words ‘5 Smiles’ on your mirror. Look at the words in the morning while you are brushing your teeth (the dental professional in me couldn’t resist reminding you to brush) and say out loud “I will smile at 5 people today”.
Then, throughout your day, smile at 5 people. It’s the easiest challenge of all time. Instead of texting while you are ordering your morning caffeination, greet the barista with a smile before requesting your morning half-soy triple foam. If you are a perpetual grouch, turning the frown upside down may seem forced at first. Remember the chopstick study above–it still works.
Again, science is on your side here. A part of your brain called the premotor cortex has ‘mirror neurons’ that respond particularly strongly to smiling? What does that mean in normal language? Smiles are contagious. We are genetically predisposed to want to smile when we see someone else smiling. So, your smile could actually create a response in someone else that makes them feel better and brightens their day. Pretty good trick when you catch your boss in a grumpy mood.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of daily opportunities to show off your smile a few extra times. And, if you sleep 9 hours per day (way more than I get) this is only one smile every three hours. Insomniacs may have to smile a touch more frequently at one smile per two hours. Repeat the 5-smile challenge daily.
You may not be able to change Korean dictators, our President’s hair, or the path of a polar vortex, but you can change the frequency with which you share a smile. This isn’t push-ups or sit-ups we are talking about here. Deciding–notice that it’s your choice–to smile literally couldn’t be easier. The result of choosing to smile? You feel better and 5 other people do too. And many, many more by the transitive property. Scientifically proven and mother approved.
Imagine if something so simple, so trivial, actually caught on. Thousands or millions of extra smiles creating intermittent bursts of stress reduction and happy hormone release. Changing the temperament of the world, 5 smiles at a time. Possible? Grin and bear it? Maybe give it a try. Science is on your side.