All over the world, throughout many different cultures, smiles are recognized as symbols of happiness and contentment. Whether they’re a friendly introduction or an automatic response to a funny moment, just about everyone on the planet understands what a smile means. But did you know that smiles also have a different impact on our lives? In some ways, smiling can make us healthier, less stressed, and — of course — happier.
Fast Facts About Smiling
Experts estimate that the action of smiling goes all the way back to our pre-human ancestors. As early as 30 million years ago, primates were using a sort of grin to signal to each other that they weren’t intending to do any harm or fight.
Smiles are generally classified into one of two groups: standard smiles and Duchenne (or genuine) smiles. Standard smiles only involve the muscles around the mouth, while Duchenne smiles use all the mouth muscles as well as those on the outer edges of the eyes. Have you ever noticed how people’s eyes crinkle up when they’re really, truly happy? That’s a Duchenne smile. Standard smiles happen more when people are trying to be polite.
Unlike a lot of types of nonverbal communication and gestures, in most countries around the world people recognize a smile as a positive signal. The exception are a few Asian countries where a smile can signify embarrassment or emotional pain. Also, in some former-USSR countries, smiling at strangers is seen as odd and somewhat suspicious.
Smiling Helps You Feel Good
The moment that you smile, your brain lights up with activity. The action releases neuropeptides, or molecules that let neurons begin to communicate. When you grin, neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin start bustling around, releasing their feel-good benefits to your brain.
A recent study showed that people who’ve received Botox injections — who have a hard time frowning — report lower levels of anxiety than those who haven’t had injections. People who’ve received botox also have less brain activity in the emotional processing areas when asked to mimic angry or upset faces. This suggests a two-way relationship between facial gestures and the emotions they represent. But does this also apply to smiling?
In a different study, people who smiled during a stressful event reported feeling fewer negative emotions and exhibited lower heart rates than those instructed to frown. What’s more, even those who used a device that forced them to smile (meaning they weren’t intentionally or purposefully smiling) showed similar results.
Smiling & Health
So how does this translate to a healthier and happier you? The answer to this question has to do with stress. We all know that feeling stressed out is no fun at all, but it can have effects on more than just your happiness. High stress levels are linked to everything from hypertension to obesity and heart disease.
To manage stress, the American Heart Association recommends that you exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, not smoke, and — you guessed it — maintain a positive attitude. What’s more positive than cracking a grin? And as we’ve seen, smiling in moments of stress can help you calm down and minimize your stress response. So go ahead, have a chat with your funniest coworker or watch that hilarious puppy video. It’s good for your health! ◊