The Science Behind the Smile

We are going to be talking about the science behind the smile on tomorrow's show, Mondays At 3, and I wanted to pass on a great blog written by Leo Widrich called, The science of smiling: A guide to human's most powerful gesture:

Why did the Mona Lisa become one of the most famous paintings of all time? That’s a question an incredible amount of people have asked themselves in the past. And one possible answer is this: because of her unique smile.

What happens to our brain when we smile?

Let’s say you experience a positive situation and you see a friend you haven’t met in a long time. This means that neuronal signals travel from the cortex of your brain to the brainstem (the oldest part of our brains). From there, the cranial muscle carries the signal further towards the smiling muscles in your face.

Sounds simple enough right?

And yet, that’s only where it starts. Once the smiling muscles in our face contract, there is a positive feedback loop that now goes back to the brain and reinforces our feeling of joy. To put more succinctly:

Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure-inducer, cannot match.

Smiling then seems to give us the same happiness that exercise induces in terms of how our brain responds.

What smiling does to our health, success and feeling of happiness

Smiling reduces stress that your body and mind feel, almost similar to getting good sleep, according to recent studies. And smiling helps to generate more positive emotions within you. That’s why we often feel happier around children – they smile more. On average, they do so 400-times a day. Compare that to happy people who smile 40-50 times a day. Quite a difference. But wait, there’s more; the average person only smiles 20-times a day.

Why does this matter? Smiling leads to decrease in the stress-induced hormones that negatively affect your physical and mental health, say the latest studies:

  • In the famous yearbook study, they tracked the lives of women who had the best smiles in yearbook photos compared to the rest. Women who smiled the most lived happier lives, happier marriages and had fewer setbacks. Here is a sample of the women from the observed yearbook. I let you guess who was successful and who wasn’t:
  • The baseball card study also found a clear correlation between how big a smile someone made on a baseball card photo and how long they would live. The people who smiled the most turned out to live 7 years longer than those who didn’t.

Of course, the above only shows a correlation, and not a causation. And yet, I can’t help but agree that smiling breeds trust, makes you happier and helps you to live longer.

And most importantly, smiling can be learned. Or to put more precisely, re-learned. Most of us forget how to smile genuinely over time, as we adopt social smiles more and more. Here is a guide to get your genuine, duchenne smile back:

A 3-step guide to a better smile 

1)  Imagine a situation of joy before an event:

One of the best ways to make your smile more genuine and real comes from researcher Andrew Newberg:

“We just asked a person, before they engage in a conversation with someone else, visualize someone they deeply love, or recall an event that brought them deep satisfaction and joy. It’s such an easy exercise, and we train people to do it in our workshops.”

Personally, I’ve tried to do the same experiment before a phone call or even before writing an email. I’ve found that people can always tell if you have a smile on your face, even if they don’t see you.

2)  Practice smiling in front of the mirror

Here is something I’ve done for almost a few years in the morning: Stand in front of the mirror and smile. Practice to activate both your mouth corners and your eye sockets. You will know whenever your smile is genuine, because you will immediately feel happy and relaxed. The power of a smile, even practiced in the mirror is that it can invoke the emotion immediately.

3)  Become comfortable with smiling

A lot of people (myself included!) see smiling as something that makes you weak. Personally, I’ve found that developing a better smile starts with being very comfortable to smile a lot. If in your head, you can imagine yourself going through the day and smiling lots to everyone and everything, that’s often when a happier life starts.

Yes, this might be just a small change in thinking. And yet, for me personally, that was the most important part to smile more every day.

Quick last fact: Women smile more than Men, here is why 

Here is something interesting. Researcher LaFrance concluded that overall women smile a lot more than men. This comes not just from the fact that they might be happier, but also, that socially it is more acceptable for women to smile.