Smiling: the science of feeling good about life

Recent medical and psychological studies have shown that a smile is a whole lot more than just a ‘frown turned upside down.’

Did you know that high-tech medical imaging has shown that the sight of a smiling face makes the brain of an outgoing person ‘light up’ more than that of a shy person?

Or, that powerful, self-confident people tend to smile only in situations where they are actually happy, while those who are less powerful or confident smile regardless of their emotional state?

Or, that laughter produces an adaptive response to stress by creating perspective and improving relationships?

These recent discoveries lend scientific credibility to what we have suspected all along: Smiling, when it’s genuine and not forced, serves as both a physical and emotional release of tension. When you smile, you not only make yourself happy, but you also improve the psychological atmosphere around your family and other relationships.

I realize that making yourself smile can’t, all by itself, generate happiness. There’s a cognitive (thinking) component as well. People handle this in different ways. Some sit down and think about how bad things could be, and how fortunate they are in relation to other people. A recent example of this was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So many of my clients commented, ‘I’m a little down right now about how my day is going, but think of how much worse it could be!’

I call this a ‘perspective building’ exercise, and it’s fine, as far as it goes. But the absence of misery or tragedy does not, by itself, a happy life make. People can also find it helpful to consider what is going well in their own lives, and how they have the power to make it better. Research has shown that depression is a state of learned helplessness. In contrast, non-depressed people tend to focus on the variety of choices they have in their daily lives. It seems to make sense that people who feel more of a sense of control over their lives (empowered, self-confident) also smile more.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals are faced with the eternal chicken/egg question: Which comes first: smiling or mental health? Do mentally healthy people smile more because they’re happier to begin with, or does smiling actually lead to increased mental health? My experience has shown that it’s a combination of the two. The more you think about what you have to be happy about, the more you’ll smile. The more you smile, the more you’ll have good relationships with other people and, in the process, add to your own happiness.

Scientific investigation has uncovered some interesting cultural differences on the subject of smiling. According to one researcher, the French think that most Americans are dopey because they smile all the time. In France, smiling is generally not practiced among strangers, but is reserved for people with whom one has some relationship. I would add that these differences are not just cultural, but individual as well. The simple fact is that some people smile more than others.

Research also suggests that women smile more than men. A lot of psychologists suggest that women, more often than men, see themselves as responsible for nurturing the harmony and happiness in personal relationships. Interestingly, research also shows that when women enter traditionally male-dominated careers, the differences in smiling between men and women tend to disappear. Perhaps the particular situation has more to do with smiling than gender.

Sometimes people look at photographs of themselves—not formal portraits, but the kind taken spontaneously on holidays or at parties—and comment, ‘Look at how I’m frowning! Am I always like that?’ This shows how hard it is to see yourself objectively with respect to behaviors like smiling. If your relationships are less than satisfying, or if your spouse, for example, seems chronically annoyed with you and you can’t understand why, then you might want to consider the role of smiling (or not smiling) in the situation.

Lack of smiling isn’t only a consequence of depression or sadness. It’s also a result of anxiety. When people are anxious, they tend to smile less. Have you ever flown on an airplane and examined the expression on most people’s faces, particularly before and after the flight? Some people have told me that when they force a smile under difficult circumstances, they actually start to feel better. Individuals who feel nervous about public speaking will smile in order to appear confident. The result is a more comfortable feeling as they make their presentations. People with phobias are sometimes helped by trying to smile and laugh during the feared situation. Smiling unleashes the power to ‘self-fulfill’ a happy prophecy.

Everybody knows that smiling, like happiness and calmness, can’t be totally forced or faked. But maybe a little extra effort can perk up your emotional state, as well as improve the dynamics of your personal and business relationships. Give it a try! You can make a difference in the lives of everyone around you—one smile at a time.