The Health Benefits of Smiling
“Everytime you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
~ Mother Teresa
It’s so easy in our everyday lives to become consumed by all the things we have to do, as well as the financial pressures we must endure when money is tight. Feeling down and negative about it all, from time to time strikes all of us, but even when you feel your own stress building up inside you, did you know that perhaps the very best thing you can do is put on a happy face? Yes, even if it means you have to force a phoney smile.
“Peace begins with a smile.”
~ Mother Teresa
It has been said that a photograph or the happy face of a wholesome model or actor, looking right into the camera induces people to buy products–so we know advertisers know the power of a smile! We all inherently know the power of a smile too! We feel good whilst smiling and we feel good when we are smiled at.
Recently however, studies have shown that the simple, natural act of smiling actually helps our health by lowering our heart rate and relieving our stress levels.
An interesting study from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, required participants to hold a variety of facial expressions while enduring stress-provoking situations. The researchers recruited 169 college-age volunteers, of whom half were men and half were women. They were provided with chopsticks and taught to hold them in their mouths while making certain facial expressions. They produced a neutral look, a smile that only involved the mouth, and a Duchenne smile, which is more of a true smile that requires activity in muscles of both the mouth and the eyes. To half of the subjects, the suggestion was made that the Duchnenne smile was to be made like a smile. The other half was simply directed on the muscular action needed.
The entire group of participants were told they would be multi-tasking while holding the chopsticks in their mouths and keeping a particular expression on their faces. The tasks they needed to perform were designed to be difficult and therefore heighten their stress levels. For instance, the volunteers were made to trace a star shape using their non-dominant hand working off a mirror reflection or plunging a hand into ice water (not something we usually would want to smile about).
The researchers monitored the heart rates of the subjects both during and after the tasks. The smilers had lower heart rates than those wearing neutral expressions. The greatest difference was found in those who executed a Duchenne smile that is most similar to a true smile. However, even the participants who formed a smile with their mouths only had lower heart rates than those keeping a neutral face, suggesting that any sort of grin–even a completely fake smile–can be beneficial.
Researchers know today that we produce greater quantities of both adrenaline and cortisol when undergoing stress. This “fight or flight” response increases the heart rate and affects blood flow to ensure the vital organs of the core of the body are receiving their fair share at the expense of the extremities. Therefore, having a lower heart rate means we are not feeling or reacting to the stress nearly as much.
According to the results of this study, smiling would appear to have some sort of calming effect. In fact, blood pressure rates were also noted to be lower in many of the smiling volunteers, but not all. Since the same hormones in the body that affect heart rate also increase blood pressure, it’s interesting that those results were not as consistent. The difference could possibly be due to high blood pressure being a long-term condition that develops over time. High blood pressure is affected by overeating and other poor health habits, whereas a quickened heart rate is generally short term. Then again, in some people the higher blood pressure could have been the result of hardened arteries, which would not have changed no matter how much one smiled.
Earlier research about smiling has produced mixed results. A 2011 study at Michigan State University in East Lansing found that people who had to be polite all day at work and produce fake smiles ended up with overall worse moods than others. Yet, when those same subjects were told to conjure their smiles based on happy thoughts, both their moods and their productivity levels increased.
When we smile, we release a chemical message deep within our brain known as an endorphin. Once released these endorphins travel down our spine sending feel good messages throughout the rest of our body. Endorphins are strong enough to reduce symptoms of physical, or emotional pain, as they envelop us in a nice warm feeling of well being. They are a chemical of approximately the same strength as another pharmaceutical chemical that we all know of called Morphine.
Endorphins have that wonderful ability to make us feel happy, and whenever we all smile, we release them. So even if you are not happy when you begin to smile, you will be afterwards, and the more often that you smile then the happier you will feel!
I think, since it costs us nothing to smile, then why not smile as often as possible? If the first thing we would do when faced with stressful people or situations was smile, we might unnerve them to such a degree that we neutralize the stressful event right in its tracks. This might even turn into a giggle or full on laugh fest.
It’s worth remembering that smiling is contagious. Let’s starting spreading smiles, because they might just turn to all out laughter, just like what happened to these folks on a German train. Before everyone knew it, everyone was laughing!
It all starts with a smile!
Photo of Celeste Yarnall by Alan Mercer