How Smiling Can Make You Happier

It’s obvious to us that being happy causes us to smile. The reason why we smile when we’re happy is somewhat mysterious (though there are theories), but we know that being happy clearly seems to cause smiling. However, does this correlation work both ways? That is, if being happy causes us to smile, can smiling cause us to be happy too?

Much research has been done on the potential causal influence of facial expressions on emotion. After reviewing the research, it definitely seems that smiling does help us be happier.



Research: Smiling Makes Us Feel Better

As was said above, there has been much research on the effect of facial expression on mood, and there have been multiple tests that suggest that smiling makes you happier.

Researchers have had to get creative to create tests that get people to smile without giving away the point of the test (called a single-blind test). For example, one researcher had subjects hold a pencil in their mouths a certain way to force a desired facial expression—so for subjects the researcher wanted to smile, he would have them hold the pencil in their mouths horizontally. In this study, subjects then had to rate the funniness of a cartoon, and it was found that subjects who were smiling (i.e. had the pencil in their mouths horizontally) found the cartoon funnier than the subjects who frowned and the control group.

Another study evaluated the moods of women with Botox injections who, as a result, are unable to frown. Researchers evaluated the stress level, anxiety level, and depressive moods of women with and without Botox injections by using a questionnaire. The results suggested that the women with Botox injections, which inhibited their ability to smile, reported lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than women who can smile.

Though these tests were radically different in style and substance, they both seem to suggest that smiling causes us to feel better.

Research: Smiling Reduces Pain

Not only have researchers found that smiling makes you feel good, but they have also found that smiling seems to reduce the negative feelings we experience.

For example, one researcher measured experiences of pain between people who are smiling and people who are not. The researcher applied an intense heat to subjects and then asked them to make a certain facial expression. The researcher then asked subjects to rate their pain. This researcher found that subjects who were asked to smile while having the heat applied reported lower pain scores than subjects who either frowned/grimaced or held a neutral face.

Scientists studying the physiological response to smiling found that smiling can reduce stress due to the hormones associated with smiling. When we smile, our body naturally lowers Cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in our blood while releasing endorphins (a pleasure hormone). These findings seem to suggest that there is some link between our brain and our face, and it seems that laughter has a similar link. Laughter, like smiling, also seems to cause a release in endorphins and relax us, in addition to stimulating our vital organs.

Making Sense of the Research

So how do we make sense of such a counterintuitive finding like smiling making you happy? Well, one theory is that the muscles in our face provide our brain with something called “facial feedback.” Facial feedback consists of the recognizable facial muscle patterns that the brain can interpret and react to. For example, our brain can recognize when we smile based on the activation of the muscles required to smile. As the facial feedback theory goes, the brain sees these muscle patterns and thinks, “Oh, I’m smiling. I must be happy.” This would explain why the brain seems to react to something that is, itself, normally a reaction (i.e. smiling). As for smiling’s apparent ability to reduce pain, it could be the same case as above. The brain detects pain, but when it senses that we’re smiling it may think that the pain response is wrong and try to correct the “mistake.”

The reason this conclusion doesn’t seem to make sense at first is that we assume that our actions are solely reactions to something in the brain. We assume that we feel happy, for example, because our brains are telling us that we are happy. However, we have to remember that our brains are always taking in data not just from the environment but also from our bodies. We also need to remember that our brains hate when things don’t fit neatly together, hence its apparent tendency to try to “correct” our mood when it doesn’t fully match our actions (i.e. facial expressions).

How to Improve Your Smile

Even if it’s a little selfish, a great way to get yourself to smile is to have such a great smile that you’ll want to show it off, so here’s some tips to get and keep a great smile:

  1. Brush like your dentist says: Brushing the recommended two times a day helps remove staining and plaque from your teeth, giving you a whiter, shinier smile.
  2. Change up your diet: Avoiding excess sugary and acidic foods can protect your tooth enamel from decay. Maintaining a healthy, thick tooth enamel is the key to a white smile, so avoid foods like candy and soda to keep your enamel alive and well.
  3. Use good toothpaste: Toothpaste rich in fluoride and whitening products should help keep teeth clean and pearly.

So make a conscious effort to smile more if you want to improve your mood. Whether or not you feel happy isn’t important; it’s how you react to your feelings that helps you control your mood.  So smiling can be a way to override your brain’s natural reaction to things.