Smiling Is Powerful Medicine: Research on How Smiling Can Improve Your Health, and Relationships
By Karson McGinley
No matter where you find yourself on this planet or what language you speak, you’ll know a smile when you see one. While cross-cultural studies reveal slightly different meanings ascribed to smiling, they appear throughout the lifespan of all human (and some non-human) beings. Scientists have identified three different kinds of authentic smiles as well as identified the traits of a fake one.
What can all the research on smiling do for you? More than you might think. Psychological researchers have found many benefits to the act of smiling that include improved relationships, improved mental health, and even increased lifespan! Keep reading to learn more about some recent findings on smiling than can take your life from good to great with a simple curve of the mouth.
I have always valued my smile. I have been blessed with a “good” smile, but I haven’t been blessed with strong bones that hold my teeth in my mouth that make a “good” smile. The photo above is a mosaic frame I gave to my prosthodontist of with a photo of us. This wonderful man helped me get my smile back when my teeth and implants were falling out of my mouth, due to deteriorating bone.
Smiling Is Good for Your Health
You likely tend to think of a smile as a result of positive emotions or stimuli, but it turns out that your smile can actually affect your stress levels and productivity, too. When scientists asked participants to engage in a challenging task, they found that the smiling folk had lower stress levels and heart rates than the non-smiling group. Some people were asked to hold chopsticks horizontally in their mouths to simulate the shape of a smile, and even those people saw the positive effects of the smile on their faces.
I’ve heard that looking in a mirror and smiling while talking on the phone (especially at work) can make a world of difference on how that conversation plays out. If you smile during that conversation I bet the end results will turn out greatly more positive than if you frowned or had no smile. I bet your stress level and productivity will be more healthy by your smile, as well!
Smiling also releases endorphins, which improves your mood, helps you to relax, and lowers your blood pressure. And because smiling is contagious, the benefits of your smile extend beyond your own body to the people you engage with.
Smiling May Help You Live Longer
So if smiling can contribute to less overall stress, and lower stress levels prolong lifespan, then smiling prolongs lifespan, right? Right! A compelling study at Wayne State University studied photos to classify the smiles of 230 baseball players. They found that the players with partial smiles lived on average two years longer than players who didn’t smile at all; those who had the biggest smiles lived roughly seven years longer than then non-smiling ones.
While it might be frightening to think about your school-age yearbook photos having any indication of the span of your life, it may be time to turn that frown upside down to make up for lost time.
My granny lived just shy of her hundredth birthday. She was always smiling. I never heard her say anything negative or anything bad about anyone or anything. Her mindset led her to a long and happy life.
I try to live my life like that today, being optimistic and hopeful, joyful and content. Even though life throws curveballs at us each and everyday, can we not take the time to remember just three things for which we are grateful? Can we not know that at this very moment everything is perfect and just as it is meant to be? What are we going to do with this moment? Be at peace or shit on it? I choose to be at peace.
Smiling Improves Your Relationships
Looking for a date or a mate? People find you more attractive (and thinner) when you smile. Studies show that different areas of the brain light up when looking at pictures of people who are smiling versus not smiling. People who are smiling to any degree are generally labeled more attractive (and women are considered more trustworthy than those with neutral expressions. The next time you are in a social situation and want someone to talk to you try smiling and see what happens.
I remember an old beau telling me how much more beautiful I am when I smile. Agreed. When looking at photos of myself without my smile, “Yuck!” Scary!” “Ugly!”
As I practice daily smiling and centering on a life deserving of smiling, staying in humility and gratitude, my photos sure are more pleasing.
Smiling Improves Effectiveness in the Workplace
The benefits of smiling extend beyond interpersonal relationships to the work environment. Smiling at your coworkers creates moments of connection that lead to greater productivity and teamwork. People in the service industry prove to have a more positive effect on customers when they smile. And people in leadership positions tend to favor their employees who smile more regularly. However, be careful, as some studies have shown that smiling too much can prevent you from being hired, as it can make your potential employer find you to be less serious or competent. One article suggests that smiling only at the beginning and end of an interview is enough to show that you are friendly, but not so friendly that you would be taken advantage of or manipulated.
I remember my boss and customers always ribbing me for smiling all the time. I would just reply, “Sure beats the alternative”. Why not smile? All we have is this moment in front of our noses and it’s good, yeah? It brings me into gratitude. I sure like living realizing my glass is half-full, and not half-empty.
Smiling Improves Your Mood
Yes, you smile when you’re in a good mood, but smiling can also put you in a good mood. When participants were injected with botulinum toxin (a neuromuscular blocker) that would paralyze the frowning muscles in their faces, their moods improved and their depressive symptoms decreased. This finding suggests that the facial expressions involved in a true smile are part of a feedback loop that affects your emotions. People who frown during unpleasant procedures report more pain than those who make neutral or relaxed faces, inferring that the feedback loop works both ways.
I’m being reminded of the countless hours I’ve spent in the dentist chair. Not always pleasant. But when I remember to breathe, that everything is perfect at this moment, that the end result is worth this discomfort, I can release my tension back into the clouds. It does not serve me. Being stress free and in the moment helps tremendously to get back into gratitude and serenity.
Also, I try not to expend what little energy I have on thoughts and feelings that do not serve my well-being. I spent so many wasted hours on researching why I had bone-loss. I could have been using that energy for something more positive. I did, however, later find out by my periodontist the simple reason for bone-loss in my mouth while the rest of my bones were strong and healthy. None of that research nor delving into my past of “could have’s, would have’s, should have’s” made any difference of where I am now. I shall expend my energy in a positive direction moving forward, not backward.
What Constitutes a Real Smile?
The botulinum toxin studies also point to the importance of the eyes and forehead when smiling authentically.
The Duchenne (or genuine) smile involves not just the muscles around the mouth, but also the ones that cause the cheeks to raise and the eyes to crescent. People who smile just with their mouths (think of the “say cheese” smile when taking a photo) don’t experience the same rewards as those who are smiling with their entire face; they do experience some of the benefits, just to a lesser degree.
People who tend more easily toward Duchenne smiles self-report better life satisfaction and marriages, however, so it may be worth learning how to smile with more of your face in the long run.
Just be who you are…perfect at this very moment. It will show up in your smile if you are comfortable in your own skin and love yourself. And you should feel good about yourself. You’re doing and being the best you can…right now. You have gifts that no one else on this planet has. Cherish them. Share them. Not only will your self-love and self-worth show up in your smile, it will emanate from every fiber of your being, felt by everyone around you, and the trickle-down effect is magical!
Practice Makes Perfect
Practice makes perfect—especially for men. Researcher Marianne LaFrance says that women smile more than men (mostly because they’re better at social intelligence and judging what is going on with other people). But far and away, children win the smiling contest. One article reports that children smile, on average, 400 times a day, whereas the happiest adults only smile 40-50 times a day.
If that doesn’t give you a kick in the pants, consider it this way: speaker and entrepreneur Ron Gutman says in his popular Ted Talk on the hidden power of smiling, that smiling is like a superpower. But unlike the power to fly or to become invisible, this one can be learned, practiced diligently, and improved upon.
So watch a funny movie, play more with your kids, and practice calling to mind someone who really lights you up when you’re posing for a picture. The smile on your face could literally make you happier, healthier, more effective, more attractive, and live a longer life. Doesn’t the thought of that make you smile?
Just like any- and everything in our lives that we want to change, practice makes perfect. The seed has been planted. It’s up to us how badly we want to change. See the glass half-full and not half-empty, living a positive and optimistic life, living in peace and contentment; they all come from baby steps. Keep at it. You will get results beyond your wildest dreams!
With warmest aloha,
For those interested in Art with a Message of Hope and Optimism, please visit my website at www.DeesignsByHarris.com. Mahalo and have a great day!
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center’s Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
About the Author
Karson McGinley, Yoga Teacher, Life Coach, and Joy Seeker
Karson McGinley is the founder of Happy-U ( H olistic A pproach to P ositive P sychology & Y oga) and the co- owner (along with her husband) of Happy-U Namasté Yoga Center (http://happyunamaste.com/) in San Diego, CA. A teacher for over a decade, Karson works to bridge the gap between the ancient wisdom of yoga and the modern science of happiness through her yoga classes, workshops, and Happy-U’s Teacher Training program. Karson’s classes are inspired by what goes on in the modern day life of a joy-seeker, using the power of music, laughter, and storytelling to take her students on a journey within.
From The Chopra Center