Smile for your Health

One of my favorite ‘in-season’ pastimes is to stroll the boardwalk or the beach and watch people having fun. Though many have gone to considerable expense to travel (or buy a vacation home) here, their laughter and smiles always make me feel good about where I choose to live full-time. In fact, recent studies have demonstrated that those smiles are a lot more than just ‘frowns turned upside down.’ High-tech medical imaging has shown that the sight of a smiling face physically stimulates electrical activity in the brain of an outgoing person. Research has also shown that powerful, self-confident people tend to smile only when they are actually happy, while those who are less confident smile regardless of their emotional state. Similarly, laughter has been proven to be an effective response to stress by creating perspective and improving relationships.

So what we’ve suspected all along is true: Smiling, when it’s genuine, serves as a physical and emotional release of tension. When you smile, you not only make yourself happy, but you improve the psychological atmosphere around you. 

Forcing yourself to smile can’t, all by itself, generate happiness. There’s a cognitive (thinking) component as well. People handle this in different ways. Some think about how bad things could be, and how fortunate they are in relation to other people. ‘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 ‘perspective building,’ 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 should also consider what’s going well in their own lives, and how they have the power to make it better. Depression, for example, is often defined as a state of learned helplessness. 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.

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 improved 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 and 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. It could just be that some people smile more than others.

Research also suggests that women smile more than men because women often see themselves as responsible for nurturing the harmony and happiness in personal relationships. Furthermore, when women enter traditionally male-dominated careers, the differences in smiling between men and women tend to disappear. Could it be that smiling has more to do with the particular situation than just gender?

Sometimes people look at snapshots of themselves and comment, ‘Look at how I’m frowning! Am I always like that?’ It’s hard to see yourself objectively with respect to behaviors like smiling. If your relationships seem to be less than satisfying, you might want to consider the role of smiling (or not smiling) in your interactions with others. What’s there to lose?

A tendency not to smile isn’t necessarily a consequence of depression or sadness. It can also be the 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? 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 often advised to smile and laugh during the feared situation. Apparently, smiling can help to unleash 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 your personal and business relationships. Give it a try! You can make a difference in your life and the lives of everyone around you — one smile at a time.