What comes first, smiling, or happiness?
I know it can be quite tough to tell, but a bit like the chicken and the egg question, it can go both ways: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
I know it’s fairly common sense that people smile when they’re happy, I don’t need to tell you that. I’m here to tell you how smiling MAKES you happy!
So before I get started, I would like you all to place a pen or pencil in your mouth, and I need you to hold it there with your teeth – your lips are not allowed to touch it. And I’ll explain why you’re doing this, and the effect it has as I go along. I promise, you’ll thank me for it later.
Every time you smile, you throw a little ‘feel-good party’ in your brain. And there’s none of this BYO nonsense. The act of smiling provides all the feel good drugs, called neurotransmitters, that you need. A little dopamine. A hint of endorphins. And an open-bar of serotonin. And these chemicals all work together to increase pleasure and make you happy. In fact, the serotonin release brought on by your smile serves as a natural anti-depressant/mood lifter. Many of today’s pharmaceutical anti-depressants also influence the levels of serotonin in your brain, but with a smile, you don’t have to worry about negative side effects – and you don’t need a prescription from your doctor!
But studies have shown that you don’t even need to really smile to gain these benefits. These benefits all arise thanks to the muscle movements that smiling causes. So if you move your muscles in the same way as smiling, it produces the same response in the brain. And THAT’S why you’ve been holding your pencils in your mouth without letting your lips touch it – because this forces your face into the general position and muscle movements of a Duchenne smile, raising the corners of your mouth while also crinkling the corners of your eyes into crow’s feet. And this releases those chemicals and makes you feel good.
Many studies have used this technique, where they’ve gotten participants to hold a pencil in their mouth just as I’ve requested you to do, and in a control condition they held the pencil with their lips (so the face muscles weren’t being pulled in such a way to release the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters). The participants were then shown short film clips and were asked how much they enjoyed the clip, and how happy they felt. And what they found is that participants who had been holding their pencil just like you have, responded to enjoying the clip more, and feeling happier. Crazy, right!? Just from the way they held a pencil in their mouth.
Some experimenters weren’t happy with just these self-report results, and instead decided to investigate the activation of the brain. So participants brain waves were recorded when they consciously forced their face into the ‘genuine’ smile position. And indeed, the resulting electric signals were indistinguishable from those sent in the course of a genuinely amused response to a well-told joke. So even a ‘fake’ smile causes the same electrical response and chemical release as a full-hearted smile.
This whole idea is explained by Charles Darwin’s ‘Facial Feedback Response Theory.’ In 1872, Charles Darwin wrote “even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” The act of smiling itself actually makes us feel better rather than smiling being merely a result of feeling good. This is why some psychologists urge depressed or angry patients to smile more. A study showed how smiling actually sends enough endorphins and serotonin to the brain where it can potentially change a person’s overall mood. Some people may find it hard to smile because they are always looking at the bad in various situations, and so they don’t get these natural high feelings that a smile may cause. If a person that typically thinks negative thoughts can learn to smile more, they may be able to change their mood naturally. Simply forcing yourself to physically smile, even without actually being happy in that moment, or having a reason to smile, still has many of the same benefits.
So whether you’re happy, sad, angry, stressed or frustrated: smile – because smiling makes you happy! :)