I had a friend in highschool who would bite a pencil and hold it against the corners of her mouth, making herself smile. I asked her about it and she told me it helped her stay relaxed during stressful moments such as studying for our exams. Years later I still think about it, does “fake it till you make it” actually work?
Smiling has been found to not only lift our mood, but it also helps lower stress, and boost our immune system. Studies have linked smiling to lower blood pressure, and an overall longer lifespan.
The acts of smiling and laughing have a long list of health benefits, both physical and mental. When you smile, the muscles around your mouth activate various branches of the facial nerve (VII) which send signals to your brain. In response, the brain releases endorphins, often called “feel good” chemicals, that help relieve pain and stress. The most common trigger for endorphin release is physical activity, such as running, swimming, dancing, etc.
A study conducted by the University of Kansas found that smiling while experiencing stressful emotions can help reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response. Participants in this study performed tasks designed to be stressful, and researchers measured their heart rates and self-reported stress levels. The results show that the participants who held chopsticks in their mouth forcing them to smile reported less of a decrease in positive affect compared to those who had a neutral facial expression. In other words, smiling, even when forced, can trick your brain into believing you’re happy, lessening feelings of stress. Pressman, one of the psychologists involved in the study, said that when you “- are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!”
Smiling reduces the amount of cortisol, the hormone involved in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, produced by your body, resulting in a decrease in stress. Long-term activation of stress responses, and overexposure to cortisol and other hormones involved in stress, can have adverse effects on our health, such as increasing the risk of anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease and sleep problems.
Another study conducted in 2003 consisted of participants being randomly assigned to one of three expressions; sadness, anger or happiness. They were asked to act out the feeling they were assigned, by producing the facial expression and posture they would normally be in when feeling that emotion. After participants repeated this action a couple times, they were administered an autobiographical task. They were given a neutral cue word, such as “car” or “tree”, and were asked to think about a life experience related to that word, and to rate the emotional content of the experience on a scale. Participants who were assigned happiness, and practiced the actions related to that emotion, reported happier memories. This led the researchers to conclude that emotional expressions influenced the participant’s mood and their memory.
Laughter also has short and long-term health benefits similar to smiling and can help relieve pain. The results of a study published in 2011 to test whether laughter elevates pain thresholds, found that when participants viewed videos that elicited laughter their pain thresholds were raised significantly, compared to the participants who viewed neutral videos. This is explained due to the endorphins released when we laugh.
Both smiling and laughing also affect those around you. Smiling is contagious, and seeing others smile creates an automatic muscular response. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin has found some explanations as to why we mimic others when they smile at us. A social aspect of smiling results from the feeling of reward activated by the orbitofrontal cortex when we see others laugh or smile. Additionally, the orbitofrontal cortex is also activated when looking at attractive faces, and a study published in 2003 found a significant interaction between attractiveness and happiness.
It’s almost intuitive to think that smiling and laughing can make you feel better. Even faking or forcing a smile can have this effect. According to Self-Perception Theory, developed by Daryl Bem, we infer our internal states, such as our emotions, from our action and bodily experience- “we feel happy because we smile, and angry because we scowl”. At FitQuid we aim to motivate the community to live a healthy lifestyle, by promoting physical and mental wellbeing. With the global pandemic there has been an increase of anxiety and depression, making smiling and optimism not come too easily these days. No matter how forced it feels, start the day with a smile.