Real or forced, smiling makes you feel better, says science

When someone comes out of nowhere and tells you to smile, how do you react? If you’re in a bad mood or deep in thought, you may resent the intrusion and immediately bristle against this unwelcome command.

But judging by the ever-mounting study evidence, you may want to take this directive to heart and respond with a smile — even if you don’t feel like it.

It’s like the lyrics of that old song suggest: the gray skies of your bad mood do tend to clear up when you put on a happy face, whether you mean it or not. But to get the full mood-lifting benefit, you have to be very precise in the way you do it….

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How smiling helps improve your mood

There has been plenty of research done as to whether people’s subjective experience of their emotions could be influenced by their facial expressions. And in almost all cases, individuals who positioned their facial muscles in a smile felt happier than before.

In fact, some studies suggest that smiling can decrease stress, fight depression, relieve pain, lower blood pressure and even help you live longer.

How can a simple smile do all that?

Well, when you smile, it immediately triggers the release of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Dopamine and serotonin help boost your mood, lower your heart rate and blood pressure and reduce your stress levels, while endorphins block pain signals.

Plus, smiling prompts your body to produce more white blood cells, which fight off germs and disease and help you stay healthy for longer.

One study had people mimic the facial expressions of actors seen in photos, move the corners of their mouths to their cheeks using only their facial muscles and put a pen in their mouth to move the facial muscles into a simulated smile shape. The first two exercises generated a noticeable increase in happiness, while the pen-in-mouth technique didn’t achieve the same mood changes.

Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, a researcher at the University of South Australia, says holding a pen in one’s mouth may not have been a close enough representation of a smile to raise happiness levels.

“Still, the evidence is strong, and knowing that we can somewhat ‘fake it ‘til we make it’ is definitely a reassuring proposal,” Marmolejo-Ramos says.

He adds that these findings are timely as the world approaches a fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s no doubt that the world’s been struggling amid the current pandemic,” Marmolejo-Ramos says. “While individuals naturally respond differently to adverse situations, it’s encouraging to think that we can sway our emotions by simply putting on a happy face.”

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The fullness of your smile

In order to reap the benefits of a smile, you have to make it as full as possible. The trick is to make sure you feel it in your eyes. Lift the corners of your lips until your cheeks squeeze up and the corners of your eyes squint. That’s a full smile, and you should start to feel better right away.

Another great thing about smiling is that it doesn’t just benefit you. If you smile at someone, it’s very likely they’ll smile back and feel their own mood lift.

Research shows we have an instinct for facial mimicry, and it allows us to empathize with or experience the feelings of other people. So whether someone smiles or frowns, we tend to mirror their expression without even realizing it.

Since people are likely to assume your expression when they see it, try making that expression a smile. As the song goes, it’ll “spread sunshine all over the place.”

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‘Grey skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face’ — University of South Australia

A multi-lab test of the facial feedback hypothesis by the Many Smiles Collaboration — Nature Human Behaviour

Why smiles (and frowns) are contagious — ScienceDaily

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.