Among the benefits of smiling more, it can trick our brains into thinking we're happy, which boosts our moods and makes us healthier.
Ever had someone tell you to cheer up and smile? I'm sure you know how it feels to be told to smile when you don't feel like doing it, especially when you are tired, stressed, or just not having it. This has been rooted in the expectation that we should look pleasing and accommodating to others, which is not your job. I’m not here to tell you to smile so you’ll look better, but consider adding smiling to your health routine so you can FEEL better.
But there are good reasons to smile, even if it seems silly. Studies show that simply smiling can improve your health and well-being even if you don't feel like smiling or even know that you're smiling!
A HEALTHY Smile?
If you only hold on to the thought that feeling happy or hearing something funny makes you smile, how can the reverse also be true?
The fact is, each time you smile, it activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.
If you’re the kind of person, who likes to know “why,” read the next few paragraphs. If you just want the summary of how smiling helps you & action steps, you can skip to the bullets!
Smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress (1). Neurons use neuropeptides to communicate with each other. They help us communicate our emotions to the whole of our bodies. When you smile, dopamine, endorphin, and serotonin are released into your brain (2). It both relaxes your body and lowers your blood pressure and heart rate.
Why smiling is healthy
Let’s examine the relationship between feeling and smiling. The nerves to the muscles in your face that make you smile run along the same tracts as your vagus nerve, so activating those muscles by smiling upregulates your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, often called the Rest & Digest response).
The theory that your facial impression can affect your mood is called the “facial feedback hypothesis.”The idea is that facial expressions directly correlate with emotions and suggests that the act of smiling makes us feel better rather than just being a side effect of feeling good.
When you smile, you are using specific muscles to do it. When your brain recognizes that your facial muscles are in a smiling shape, it will activate neural messaging in your brain to produce feel-good chemicals like neurotransmitters and endorphins.
Think of smiling like a natural anti-depressant. A simple smile can trigger the release of mood-boosters dopamine and serotonin.
- Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress, while low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression
- Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness, while low levels of dopamine are also associated with depression and lack of motivation.
As Dr. Isha Gupta, a neurologist, explains:
A smile spurs a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing certain hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness. Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression. Low levels of dopamine are also associated with depression.
Muscles for smiling
The facial feedback hypothesis has been tested in several ways and still seems correct. You don’t need to feel happy to get the benefit of raising the corners of your mouth! Your brain doesn't seem to differentiate between real or “fake” smiles, as it interprets the positioning of the facial muscles in the same way.
- A small British study suggested those who used BOTOX and physically could not frown felt happier.
- Similarly, another study discovered that when subjects were asked to bite down on a pencil (simulating a smile-like face), they reported more positive feelings than subjects that were asked to purse their lips around the pencil (more of a frown-like face).
7 Reasons to smile more
These neurophysiologic interactions triggered by smiling can influence your health in many positive ways:
- reduce stress, to feel more calm and relaxed
- lower heart rates and blood pressure (by up to 30%!)
- improve and regulate mood (those good ole’ neurotransmitters), mitigating anxiety, anger, and fear
- reduce how much your brain pays attention to pain signals by releasing natural painkillers called endorphins
- strengthen your immune system by increasing the number of antibody-producing cells, and decreases inflammation
- increase endurance, for better workouts
- is associated with a longer lifespan (an average of 7 years!)
Benefits of smiling more
EVEN boosts your creativity and productivity at work! (up to 10%! Reduced stress enables you to keep a clear mind, stay focused, and avoid errors.)
“Smile, breathe, and go slowly” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Get more out of your workout by smiling while you exercise.
Not only do studies show that periodically smiling during hard workouts increases your endurance and performance, it actually DECREASES your perceived level of exertion. That means that it seems EASIER! Who wouldn’t want that?
Eliud Kipchoge, a Kenyan marathoner and Olympic gold medalist, routinely finishes the 26.2 in just over 2 hrs and can often be seen running with a smile. Not because he loves being the fastest, but because it helps him BE the fastest.
A practical smiling exercise
While some people may be able to increase their determination to outdo themselves by using a “game face” grimace, studies and real-life performance show that runners are most economical (2.8%!) with their oxygen (the limiting factor on energy production) when they smile.
It may feel awkward at first, but try it for yourself. During the toughest moments of your workout, be that during a long run, when you want to collapse on the floor from squats or burpees, or during a heavy lift, relax your jaw and try lifting the corners of your mouth for 30 seconds.
You will find that unnecessary tension in your body dissolves, and you get a jolt of energy! That allows your airway to open and tells your brain to release endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which decrease stress and blood pressure and even act as mild, natural painkillers in your body.
On purpose, as an exercise, smile for one minute three times each day.
And if you really want to level up your workouts, instead of your serious exertion face, try cracking a smile for 30 seconds during a really hard part and see if you notice anything!
There's solid evidence that smiling makes us feel better. When you smile, notice what changes in you. Are you calmer, less anxious, or upset, even for a few seconds?
If you're already feeling happy, why not smile at someone else and share your happiness?
Remember how you feel when you smile and don't forget that smiling has real health advantages for your brain and body.
Don’t forget to smile today!
Heather Lynn Darby helps office and tech professionals disrupt the cycle of chronic stress that undermines their health, and to recover from the negative effects of sitting at a computer all day. Find other articles written by Heather on her coach profile.
If you are largely sedentary at work and rely on your intellectual acumen for success, her take on body-mind interventions will help you find a balance between being "in the zone" and getting the amount of movement that will optimize your mental productivity and prevent health problems.
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