Shift Happens by Angela Cook: Smiling

Shift Happens: Smiling
By Angela Cook

What do toothpaste commercials, children on Christmas morning, and family photos taken at Disney World all have in common? If you guessed happy, smiling faces, you’re right.

For as long as humans have been experiencing joy in all its forms and contexts, we have been expressing it through giggles and grins. Now, this may not be front page news as we all know that our happiness makes us smile and laughter is therapeutic, but is it possible that the reverse is true? Does smiling bring us happiness, and if so, does it bring us other benefits as well? Several scientific studies indicate that this just might be the case.

Could something as simple as smiling really be the key to living a happier, more fulfilling life? The Berkley Yearbook study suggests that it’s possible. LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner analyzed yearbook photos of female college seniors in 1958 and 1960. They also collected self-reported data from these women regarding several areas of their lives, aspirations, and personalities. They continued the research over a 30-year period, and what did they find? Women who sported sincere smiles in their class photos were shown to have higher levels of overall happiness, personal well-being, and even better marriages.

The grinning goodness doesn’t stop with there, though. It looks like smiling may actually have positive effects on our physical health as well. Several studies have proven that smiling releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain, the “happy” chemicals. So, even a fake smile can boost your mood.

In addition, Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas cleverly manipulated their participants’ facial muscles by training them to hold chopsticks in their mouths to create standard smiles, genuine smiles, or neutral facial expressions. The participants were unaware of the expressions they wore, and only half of them were actually told to smile.

They then proceeded to complete several stress-inducing tasks. Kraft and Pressman found that the smiling participants had lower heart rates and reported feeling less stressed throughout experiment and after during recovery. The lesson? Try smiling through stressful situations to reduce feelings of stress and promote a healthier heart.

Another famous research study found a positive correlation between smiling and living longer. In 2010, a group of researchers at Wayne State University studied the photographs of smiling baseball players. When comparing those who showed their pearly whites in their photos to those who did not, they found that the smiling athletes lived an average of seven years longer than those who didn’t smile for the camera. Want to live longer? Wear your smile more often.

This scientific evidence for the benefits of smiling is pretty compelling, but here’s the part where you may be protesting: “That won’t work for me. I want to smile more, but I can’t. I just don’t feel happy.” The good news is that you have the ability to change this by using the science behind the smile. Here are three simple ways to effectively create more smiles, and thus, more joy.

Surround yourself with smiling, happy people. Did you know that our brains are hardwired to mimic the behaviors or other people? It’s true. Smiling really is contagious. When we see others smiling, our brains automatically mirror those feelings and behaviors. This means we’re likely to feel happier and even smile more.

Lighten up. We have to try not to take ourselves and life so seriously. When we give ourselves permission to laugh at the mistakes we make, including the ridiculous things we sometimes say and do, we give ourselves permission to be less stressed. Less stress leads to more happiness, and we’ve already learned that happiness and smiles go hand in hand.

Just do it! When you find yourself in a stressful situation, or when you simply need a little extra emotional pick-me-up, stop and take a moment to consciously smile. In fact, do it right now. Think of the happiest moment of your life, the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you, the person who is dearest to your heart, or another wonderful memory. Now hold that image in your mind. Chances are you’re unable to do this without smiling — and not a disingenuous one, either — but a rich and sincere expression of real joy. This technique is so easy, yet so potentially life-changing. From now on, make it your go-to for quick and easy joy.

Science has shown that a single smile creates the same amount of stimulation in the brain as 200 bars of chocolate or $25,000 in cash. With a simple facial expression that packs such a powerful punch of positivity, it stands to reason that we really can make big changes in ourselves, our happiness, and our lives — one smile at a time.