Just Smile


Our founding fathers were not messing around when they established our nation upon the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The study of how individuals lead meaningful and fulfilling lives and enhance their experience of love, work, and play is a field known as positive psychology [1], and it has been growing more than ever. In fact, the most popular course at Harvard was a class on how to be happy (Psych 1504 to be exact), with the largest enrollment of any course in the catalog. [2] 

So why is achieving happiness such a big deal? According to a 2001 review published in American Psychologist, the experience of positive emotions is fundamental to human flourishing, in that it serves to broaden the range of thoughts and actions that we can think up and helps to build our physical, intellectual, social, and psychological well-being. [3]

With this in mind, what can we do to increase our happiness, but in the simplest and cheapest way possible? Smile! We often think that our facial expressions reflect our already-existing internal state, but it can work the other way around too. The act of smiling can actually make us feel happier and even enhance our social relations with others. So the phrase “grin and bear it” has some truth to it- smiling, even under tough situations, can have a mood-enhancing effect and reduce stress. Read on to learn more.


Anatomy of a Smile

What is a smile, and how does it come about? There are two major muscles involved: the zygomaticus major, a muscle which resides in the cheek and is responsible for tugging the lips upward, and the orbicularis oculi, a muscle which encircles the eye socket. [4-5] Together, these muscles work to squeeze the outside corners of the mouth and eyes into the shape we know as a “smile.” These muscles are triggered by the left anterior temporal region, a part of the brain responsible for positive emotions triggered by a joyful or satisfactory experience. 

Other muscles in the face can work to simulate a smile, but only the particular combination of the zygomaticus major and the orbicularis oculi produce a genuine expression of positive emotion. Psychologists call this the “Duchenne smile,” which is considered to be a true authentic smile. [6] What typically distinguishes a genuine smile from one that’s not? The shape of the eyes. The more the eyes scrunch in the corners, the more authentic the smile is.


Effects of Smiling

Smile, It’s a Stress-Reliever

In a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Kansas studied the potential benefits of smiling by looking at how different types of smiling affects an individual’s ability to recover from episodes of stress. Participants experienced a particularly stressful task while holding chopsticks in their mouths in a manner that produced either a neutral expression (no smile), a standard smile, or Duchenne smile. The researchers found that all smiling participants, regardless of whether they were aware of smiling, had lower heart rates during stress recovery than the neutral, non-smiling group did.  Those making the Duchenne smile had a slight advantage. [7] Thus, it may be beneficial to smile under stressful or frustrating situations. Even faking a smile, regardless of actually feeling happy, could make a difference. So the next time you are stuck in traffic or waiting in that long line at the store, turn that frown upside down-- it may just make you feel better.

Smile, It’s Contagious

Thanks to mirror neurons, seeing someone smile can actually make us smile. Mirror neurons, a small circuit of cells in the brain, are activated when we observe someone else performing an action, in turn triggering us to understand another person’s actions as well as imitate that action ourselves. [8] This topic is discussed further in an article titled “Mirror Neurons” on page ___. Basically, if someone sees you smile, their mirror neurons for smiling fire, and a rush of neural activity leads to imitation and evokes the positive feelings associated with a smile. So smile and pass it on!

Smile, It Makes Others Feel Good

A simple smile has the potential to instantly brighten up someone else’s day or put them in a better mood. Smiling in a workplace environment in particular can boost customer satisfaction, as was found in a 2001 study published in the Journal of Management. The researchers found that employees’ positive emotional displays increased customer willingness to return to the store and pass on positive recommendations to their friends [9]. So smile in your next social interactions- it may just enhance your connections (and business) with others.  

Smile, It’s Sexy and Smart

According to 1982 study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, subjects were shown a photograph of a smiling or non-smiling person. Results illustrated that subjects evaluated a smiling person more positively than a non-smiling person. Not only that, but the smiling person was perceived as more intelligent [10]. In addition, a 2003 study published in Neuropsychologia found that the reward-value system associated with seeing an attractive face is enhanced by a smiling facial expression [11]. In other words, seeing a smiling, attractive face has the strongest effect on the brain region that processes other types of rewarding stimuli like food, pleasant music, and monetary gains. So smile, it might just draw that special someone in!


Say Cheese!

The display of positive emotional expressions in photographs can actually say a lot about a person. According to a 2001 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the yearbook photographs of college women were examined in relationship to personality, life outcomes, and observer ratings. The researchers found that women who displayed more positive emotion in their pictures were rated more favorably on certain personality dimensions by observers. The observers also expected interactions with them to be more rewarding and positive, illustrating that displaying positive emotions can be beneficial to one’s social game. Not only that, but they found a correlation between the women who displayed positive emotions and favorable outcomes in marriage and personal well-being 30 years later.   [12]

According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Psychological Science, even the intensity of a smile can predict longevity. The researchers analyzed photographs of Major League Baseball players, and classified them into three categories:  no smile, partial smile (i.e. only movement of zygomaticus major muscles around the mouth), or Duchenne smile (i.e. movement of zygomaticus major muscles around the mouth plus orbicularis oculi muscles around the corners of the eyes). They found that greater intensity of the smile, with the Duchenne smile being the most intense, was correlated with higher life expectancy due to factors such as improved Body Mass Index, career length, and marital status. [13] 

Bottom Line

Overall, a smile is more than just a contraction of facial muscles. A smile can not only  have a positive effect on others who receive it, but it can also reinforce a mood you are experiencing or elicit positive emotion if it’s not already there. Becoming more comfortable with smiling is key: practicing in front of a mirror (in order to know what a real smile feels like) or thinking about something joyful before/during an event that will help you smile, are just a couple ways to go about it.  So smile while you drive. Smile as you walk. Smile as you talk with someone. It might just make a difference!

References ▾

  1. “The Science of Happiness.” harvardmagazine.com. (2007)
  2. “Positive Psychology Center.” upenn.edu. (2007).
  3. “The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.” Am Psychol. (2001).
  4. “Zygomaticus Major.” healthline.com (2014).
  5. “Obicularis Oculi.” healthline.com (2014).
  6. “The Psychological Study of Smiling.” psychologicalscience.org. (2010).
    7.“Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response.” Psychol Sci. (2012).
  7. “I Feel Your Smile, I Feel Your Pain.” psychologytoday.com. (2011)
  8. “Determinants and consequences of employee displayed positive emotions.” J Manag. (2001).
  9. “The Effect of Smiling on Person Perception.” J Soc Psychol. (1982).
  10. “Beauty in a smile: the role of medial orbitofrontal cortex in facial attraction.” Neuropsychologia. (2003).
  11. “Expressions of positive emotion in women's college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood.” J Pers Soc Psychol. (2001).
  12. "Smile Intensity in Photographs Predicts Longevity." Psychol Sci. (2010)

Fall 2014 | Vol. 15 | Issue 1

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