The Science Behind Smiling

article image

You smile when you’re happy. You smile when you’re satisfied. Now try a smile when you’re bummed—see if good feelings start to kick in 3…2…1…

Turns out, actions affect emotions: you’re not smiling because you’re happy, but rather, you realize you’re happy because of your instinctive reaction to smile. Darwin suggested that that our emotions are influenced by, not the cause of, our facial reactions; only after having a physical reaction can you deduce how you feel about something. With that logic, faking a smile actually increases positive vibes. Studies show that smiling reduces stress-enhancing hormones while boosting mood-enhancing hormones. Scientific American, however, cited studies that showed knowledge of this effect could reverse its results. “At first the brain says ‘I’m smiling; I must be happy!’ But upon learning that smiling can be a proactive strategy, this turns into ‘I’m smiling; I must be trying to make myself happy—I must be sad!’… In the same way you can’t set your alarm clock forward 10 minutes to trick yourself into punctuality, artificially forcing a smile isn’t going to do much for your happiness. Too much knowledge and the jig is up.” (quick! forget you read this!)

But it still doesn’t hurt to fake it, as one study from Penn State notes that smiling makes you appear more likable, courteous, and competent. Plus, it’s a global communicator, translatable in all languages: smiling is one of few biologically uniform reactions across the world. Babies smile in the womb. Blind babies smile at the sound of a human voice. And researchers found that members of a tribe in Papa New Guinea, one that’s completely disconnected from Western civilization, also smile when feeling joyous or satisfied.

In his TED talk, “The Hidden Power of Smiling,” Ron Gutman said that a third of Americans smile at least 20 times a day, and roughly 14 percent smile less than five times a day. Children, on the other hand, smile around 400 times a day. One British study managed to put a price tag on it: One smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as receiving up to $25,000 in cash or 2,000 bars of chocolate.

Gutman cites an amusing 30-year study that looked at yearbook photos and accurately predicted, based on their smiles, their sense of fulfillment in their marriage, standardized scores of well-being, and how inspiring that person would be to others. Looking at old baseball cards, research also found that the span of the player’s smile directly correlated with his life span: those who didn’t smile lived an average of 73 years, and those with beaming smiles on average lived to be 80.

Interested in reading more positive and solution-focused articles? Receive the Utne Uplifter newsletter! 

This video by BrainCraft explores the origins of studies in smiling:

Image by joyuousjoym Blessings, licensed under Creative Commons.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.