How one smile can change your whole day

“Sometimes joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy”

Smiling. It’s the universal code for happiness: we smile when we’re laughing, when we’re joyful, when we’ve just received great news (we also smile when things aren’t so great, but more on that here).

We’re so used to smiling when we’re happy that researchers reckon we can make that happen the wrong way round: that if we smile while we’re feeling down, we can actually make ourselves happy. It’s the age-old ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ tactic in practice.

Spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh said that ‘sometimes joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy’. The idea that smiling can put you in a good mood has been floating around for years – but researchers and scientists are increasingly finding that there could be real science behind the supposed old wives’ tale.

Psychologists at Tennessee University found that our facial movements have more impact on our mood than we might think.

The researchers found that smiling had the potential to put subjects in a good mood – while scowling could make subjects unhappy and moody. Basically, pretending to have an emotion made subjects really feel it – not such an old wives’ tale after all, it looks like.

It makes sense, when you think about it, since smiling releases neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, all of which help to make us feel great – they relax our body and can reduce our heart rate and blood pressure.

Being happier and more relaxed has a positive impact on the way people around you perceive you. As you start to feel better on the inside, others’ perception of you is positively impacted, too: smiling signals to the people around you that you’re feeling happy, and the feeling can be contagious.  

Humans are simple creatures, and researchers have found that, through the process of mimicry (an evolutionary trait which produces empathy), humans who see other humans smile are likely to copy, even when they don’t realise they’ve moved any muscles at all!

One experiment had subjects look at images of people smiling and frowning and asked them to discern their facial expressions. When the subjects looked at the images with free movement in their face, they were able to identify the smiles and frowns with ease. In a second test, however, a pencil was placed in the mouths of the subjects, making it difficult for them to move their face – and researchers found that subjects found it far more difficult to assess whether the people in the images were smiling or not. Researchers concluded that mimicry is an essential part of understanding one another – which explains, in part, why smiling is so contagious.

Smiling suppresses the control we usually have on our facial muscles, though anyone who’s been unable to stop smiling or giggling at the most inappropriate moment knows that all too well.

It’s also far more difficult to block a smile than it is to block a frown – meaning frowns don’t have the same contagious effects that smiles do.

That means that once you’ve started smiling to improve your own mood, you can have a knock-on effect on those around you and kickstart a domino effect of smiling.

Ron Gutman has shared his findings, among other researchers’ discoveries, about the impact of smiling, and about how it can change not just your day, but your whole life.

Gutman says that researchers found they were able to predict how happy individuals would be in the future based on how genuine their smiles were in year book photos: the more genuine someone’s smile in their photo, the more likely they were to be in a happy marriage years later.

And that’s not all: researchers also looked at pre-1950s US Baseball cards and, as Gutman puts it, ‘researchers found that the span of a player’s smile could actually predict the span of his life’ – players who had a beaming smile in their photograph lived an average of 79.9 years, while player who didn’t smile in their photo lived an average of 72.9 years.

So, it looks like smiling can do way more than just showing that you’re happy – it can make you happy in the first place, get others smiling, and even increase your life expectancy.

It’s worth looking after something that can have such an impact on your day and life: maintaining a healthy and happy smile can lead to a happier and healthier life.

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