“Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure-inducer, cannot match.”
What if I told you that a genuine, ear-to-ear smile could start to restore a depleted immune system right now? Sure, a big belly-laugh would do even more good, but a simple smile could really heal you from diseases as difficult to challenge as cancer or as simple as the common cold.
In an issue of Psychological Science, University of Kansas researchers found that the act of smiling has a positive effect on our happiness and physical health, helping the heart recover more quickly after stressful events. They used 170 American college students in their study, even measuring ‘fake’ smiles compared to real ones.
When the facial muscles for a genuine smile in one of the test groups were activated, meaning that the muscles at the corners of the lips and around the eyes were activated (and ‘crows feet’ were produced around the sides of the eyes, often called a “Duchenne” smile), they could perform stressful tasks without spiking their heart rates. What’s more, even when they did experience an elevated heart rate from doing a stressful activity, their hearts recovered more quickly than the groups that didn’t smile at all.
The researchers determined that people whose hearts recover from stress in this manner are generally healthier long-term, as evidenced by other studies which came to the same conclusion. One Harvard Health study describes how a slower heart rate translates to a longer lifespan.
Tara Kraft, the lead author of the study and a psychology graduate student at the University of Kansas said:
“The smilers were protected a bit.”
So do the results mean we should “fake it til we make it”?
Prior research has suggested that faking a smile may actually be bad for your happiness, but in this study, participants’ facial muscles moved in the exact same way as if they were naturally induced to flash a genuine smile—and the physiological changes were not the same.
So – genuine smiles are more effective for reducing stress than fake smiles, and less stress always means less disease. Especially with heart disease, the leading killer in the U.S., this study means simply finding authentic things to smile about could save your life.
“The neat thing about this is that smiling during the stressful period also has positive benefits for your heart health for several minutes after you’re smiling, which is pretty cool. We’ve seen so much work out there showing it’s good for emotional and social health and well-being, but this really is the first study among its kind to show that smiling is beneficial to you physically.”
10 Simple Ways to Smile More Often and Prevent Disease
Want to spread some good health with smiles? Try these:
- 1. Smile first. It is almost impossible not to genuinely smile back at a genuine smile. Have you ever seen a complete stranger, caught their eye, and they smiled so big you almost giggled? It is almost involuntary. Try giving someone this gift today.
- 2. Don’t fret if you are an insomniac. Smiling reduces stress that your body and mind feel, almost similarly to getting good sleep,
- 3. Hang out with a 2-month-old baby. Smiling is a huge milestone for babies, and it is one of the first things they recognize as a social cue from their mothers since they can only see about 8 to 12 inches from their own face. A baby’s first smile is mesmerizing.
- 4. Tell a great joke. Humor can drive a point home, or get people to pay attention to a serious subject that they might otherwise ignore. A great joke can also make the most despondent person crack a smile.
- 5. Hug someone. To be truly healthy it is said that we need at least 8 hugs a day. It is likely due in part to the fact that hugs make us smile. Hugs also instantly boost oxytocin levels, which heal feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anger. They also boost the immune system, just like smiling.
- 6. Listen intently. When was the last time someone offered you their undivided attention – no cell phone interruptions, email checking, or random distractions? If you want to get a stranger to smile genuinely, or even your best friend, listen to what they are saying. Besides, listening and silence are some of the most under-utilized communication skills around.
- 7. Engage in a random act of kindness. This can be as simple as holding a door for someone, or paying the toll of the car behind you on a toll road. It is proven that politeness and kindness make people smile, and that those acts are self-perpetuating. In fact – positive feelings from ONE act of kindness often lasts for 3 hours after the act is committed, and happy people are more likely to perform additional acts of kindness.
- 8. Play more with kids. On average, small children smile around 400 times a day – at least 100 times more often than adults do. No wonder they still know how to have a good time. Those smiles are contagious, too.
- 9. When meeting someone for the first time, re-state his or her name. People love hearing their own names spoken. It might seem a strange way to get someone to smile, but just acknowledging them personally makes them grin. Dale Carnegie, international best-seller wrote about this in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Guess what is number two on his list of ‘6 ways to make people like you’? Smile.
- 10. Check out an animal’s smile. Yes, even our two and four-legged friends in the animal world smile. Animal behaviorists used to believe that an animal’s smile was no more than a collection of conditioned reflexes that moved the muscles of their faces. New thinking on the subject; however, is allowing for the possibility that animals are expressing happiness when their muscles move in this way. Both your family dog and bottle-nosed dolphins smile. Watching that happy expression on man’s best friend just might make you smile too.
Maybe all these reasons are why recent scientific studies concluded “that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash.”
Christina Sarich is a humanitarian and freelance writer helping you to Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.