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The power of a smile

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Have you ever considered the power a smile has?

Such a simple gesture can bring happiness, stimulate your brain and reduce stress.

But how?

The science behind smiling

So what happens to your brain when you smile?

Firstly, neuronal signals travel from the cortex of your brain to the brainstem – the oldest part of your brain and from there to the smiling muscles in your face.

Once those face muscles move into a smile, a positive feedback loop goes back to the brain and reinforces your feeling of joy.

Therefore, smiling is definitely more than just a contraction of muscles in your face. The powerful feedback loop reduces stress in a similar way to getting a good night’s sleep – and all in a matter of milliseconds!

Smiling releases dopamine and serotonin

Secondly, according to New York-based neurologist, Dr. Isha Gupta, smiling creates a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing dopamine – the ‘feel-good’ hormone, and serotonin – which also helps reduce stress levels.

This is why you tend to feel better when you smile.

A photo of Joaquin Phoenix playing the Joker in a scene from the film.
Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures, via Associated Press

Smiling, just as a physical movement (without a joke or social interaction) can send positive signals to your brain. Why not “pump” yourself full of positive hormones by physically smiling (behind closed doors so no one thinks you’re crazy!) before approaching a difficult conversation?

Why does smiling matter?

Simply smiling positively impacts your overall health by decreasing stress-induced hormones that negatively affect physical and mental health. It stimulates the brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that chocolate – a pleasure-inducer, or exercise – an endorphin-raiser, cannot match. It also decreases the heart rate and boosts your immune system.

A happy circle

In essence, your brain feels good and tells you to smile, you smile and this tells your brain it feels good and so it continues.

Smiling is contagious

This is where mirror neurons come into play. They allow us to copy and reflect someone else’s behaviour. And whether you are aware of it or not, mirror neurons are constantly at work. That’s why you tend to yawn when someone else yawns or copy someone’s body posture, without meaning to. And the same happens when someone smiles at you. Unconsciously, your first reaction is to smile back.

Can you tell the difference between real and fake smiles?

Two potential muscles are activated when you smile:

  • The zygomaticus major controls the corners of your mouth. If this is the only muscle that is activated, it’s not actually a genuine smile. Scientists call this the “social” smile
  • The obicularis occuli encircles our eye socket. If this is engaged at the same time as the corners of the mouth, this is regarded as a genuine or true smile

The true smile is also referred to as the duchenne smile, named after the famous French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne, who first separated the ‘mouth corners’-only smile, from the ‘eye socket’ one.

You might feel that it is obvious when someone is only doing a ‘social’ smile and you would be right. Our brain can in fact distinguish very easily between what’s real and what’s fake. Researcher and social psychologist, Dr. Niedenthal, argues there are 3 ways we can do so:

  • Our brain compares the geometry of a person’s face to a standard smile
  • We think about the situation and judge whether a smile is expected
  • Most importantly – we automatically mimic the smile, to feel ourselves whether it is fake or real. If it is real, our brain will activate the same areas from the smiler and we can identify it as a real one

But who smiles the most?

Children smile more. On average, they do so 400 times a day. Whilst happy people still smile 40-50 times a day, the average person only does so 20 times.

Can you get better at smiling?

The answer is ‘yes’. There are various ways you can encourage yourself to smile more until it develops into a natural habit. These include smiling at yourself in the mirror, thinking of something funny and not taking yourself too seriously.

The world’s most powerful gesture

Arguably, the world’s most powerful gesture, a smile can bring you joy, improve your overall health and increase activity in your brain.

But importantly it’s worth considering the words of Mother Teresa:

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