The Science of Smiles - How Happiness Impacts Your Well-Being

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Scientific discussions over whether smiling makes people happier have long been contentious. Recently, this issue became even more contentious after 17 labs worldwide failed to replicate a seminal piece of research that suggested facial feedback increases happiness.

LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley used facial action coding to analyze smiles in college yearbook photos, then linked those ratings with personality data collected when the subjects turned 21. Their research found:

1. It’s Contagious

Your smile really can make the world smile with you, according to research conducted in Framingham, Massachusetts, and tracked for more than 10 years by BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) researchers who studied more than 4,700 people over 10 years found that happy people passed their cheer on to others--this transference of happiness lasting up to one year!

Smiling sends signals to your brain that everything is going smoothly, which can help lower stress levels. Smiling also stimulates the production of endorphins - natural feel-good chemicals which boost your mood and can relieve pain.

Studies have demonstrated the power of smiling and laughter to boost one's spirits, reduce stress levels, and strengthen immunity systems. Being in an upbeat frame of mind also makes staying healthy easier and can prevent colds or other illnesses from manifesting themselves.

Although smiling has numerous health benefits, it may not always be easy. Our lives can become increasingly busy over time and it may be challenging to find time for joyous expression. Kubzansky suggests taking several simple steps to increase happiness such as spending more time with positive people or calling or emailing friends when you feel down.

Next time you feel down, try flashing yourself a wide smile - it will help lift your spirits and could even extend your lifespan!

2. It Makes You Feel Better

Smiles are physical expressions of happiness, and the simple act of smiling can actually change facial muscles to alter how your brain interprets signals from the environment and body - and can thus boost your mood! Smiling can release feel-good neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin - which all can work to produce natural antidepressants and mood-lifters like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin - with one smile producing as much brain activity as 2,000 bars of chocolate!

Smiling faces make us feel better, and this effect extends to others around us. One study revealed that people rated photos of others more positively when their lips were in an expression of happiness versus when closed. Researchers believe this may be because when we smile our bodies release chemicals that signal to the brain and world that we're feeling well.

Smiling can make life and relationships more fulfilling, helping us feel more satisfied in both. A recent study of Major League Baseball player yearbook photos from 1952 demonstrated this effect by showing those without Duchenne smiles only lived 72.9 years, while those displaying radiant smiles enjoyed an average lifespan of 80 -- seven more years!

However not all smiles are the same, and it is essential to keep in mind that just because muscles move into the shape of a smile doesn't guarantee feeling happy. UW-Madison psychology professor Paula Niedenthal '81 recalls hearing a Russian journalist comment on American smiles being forced and fake compared with genuine ones found elsewhere.

3. It Makes You Look Younger

Feeling semi-euphoric when someone makes you smile or laugh is no illusion - it's actually your brain responding to positive emotion by producing feel-good chemicals. Smiling contracts your facial muscles, lifting some thin facial bones connected with sinuses while increasing oxygen and blood flow to your frontal lobe and stimulating the release of feel-good hormones such as dopamine.

While smiles usually convey happiness, they can also communicate other feelings. Ekman identified smiles with an averted gaze and clenched jaw as one of Ekman's "flirtatious" or "embarrassed" varieties as indicators that someone wants to appear more approachable or likable towards others.

Smiles may also communicate indifference, disapproval or the desire to be left alone; others indicate distress, fear, or sadness. While it can be tempting to mask our true emotions with smiles, doing so could backfire on us; to better express them directly it would be wiser to express them directly through body language.

Paula Niedenthal '81 recalls feeling offended by comments from French journalists who believed Americans to be inauthentic, suggesting their wide smiles were artificial and thus fake. However, Niedenthal co-authored this year demonstrates how smiling can help individuals to interpret others' facial expressions in a more favorable light. Researchers conducted an experiment where participants rated the facial expressions of other subjects while holding a pen horizontally in their mouths and without. Participants who activated their smile muscles (by contracting both the zygomatic major muscle in their cheeks and the orbicularis oculi encasing their eyes) rated other facial expressions as being more genuine and happy than when participants did not do this.

4. It Helps You Deal With Stress

Smiling -- and seeing others smile -- changes the way our brains perceive the world around us. Smiling activates the "happiness circuitry", leading to a release of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin - similar to winning 2,000 chocolate bars or $25,000. Even just seeing someone smile can activate this circuitry and trigger similar responses as winning more tangible prizes such as cars or money.

Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen used their Facial Action Coding System in the 1970s to revive Duchenne's smile-recognition theory among behavioral scientists, with Paul Ekman using genuine and fake smile distinctions once again. Furthermore, Ekman and Friesen's research demonstrated how our perceptual and motor systems work hand in hand - so when facial muscles tell the world you're happy they alter our experience of the world around us.

One of the best (and easiest) examples of this phenomenon comes from a well-known experiment involving pencils. Participants were instructed to hold a pen between their teeth and force a smile before being shown pictures of other people displaying various expressions. After these pictures had been shown to them, researchers discovered that subjects who walked around holding onto their pens more often interpreted other people's facial features and movements as happier and friendlier than those with neutral expressions.

Why do our brains interpret smiling faces as signals that we will achieve the reward (in this instance, positive interactions with other people) we seek? Because of this, it's human nature to mimic other people's smiles, leading us to find people with genuine happiness more attractive as friends. Additionally, workplace studies such as this provide scientific support for "faking it until you make it", since when your body tells itself you're happy it helps create an optimistic view of work life and coworkers alike.

5. It Makes You More Attractive

Studies show that when someone smiles, the brain takes note, and we tend to gravitate toward people who do. This may be because smiling releases "mood-boosting neurotransmitters", known as mood-lifters and natural antidepressants. Also, smiling can boost immune systems and make people less susceptible to illness.

This effect can also be observed when we look at someone's face. Our reactions to people depend on a powerful indicator - their faces. A genuine smile indicates cooperation and helping others when needed; fake ones could indicate deceitfulness and lack of trustworthiness.

When it comes to your friends and family, your smile is paramount - but it can also tell the world who you are! A study following high school students over their lives found that those who smiled more in yearbook photos ended up having more fulfilling marriages and happier lives as adults than those who didn't show as much smile.

A smile is often taken as an indicator of happiness, but it's sometimes hard to tell whether someone's smile is genuine or fake-smiling. According to researchers who conducted this experiment, certain smiles look more genuine than others and can be adjusted in various ways in order to appear sincere or false.

Duchenne smiles are widely recognized as being authentic because they can be difficult to feign and demonstrate an agreement that's hard to falsify. There are, however, various factors which could alter its authenticity such as how long someone has been smiling and their current state of mind.


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