Say Cheese: Studies Show Smiling Is Good for You

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Smiling is contagious. People who smile feel happier and healthier.

Touchy-feely stuff, right? When you’re facing looming deadlines and nonstop demands, what’s the point of smiling?

The point, actually, is clear: Extensive research demonstrates that smiling confers huge benefits. According to research reported in PsyBlog, genuine smiles send a message that others can trust you. And, people who smile are rated higher in generosity and extraversion.

Furthermore, smiling really is contagious. According to Positive Psychology News Daily, studies have found that when you smile at others, their muscles maneuver into a smile as well. In addition, when you activate muscle groups that link to specific emotions, your own body reacts as though you’re experiencing those emotions. When you smile, your body releases dopamine and other indicators associated with feeling good. 

The health benefits, in fact, are significant. Mark Stibich points out that smiling relieves stress; boosts the immune system; lowers blood pressure; and releases endorphins, natural pain killers, and serotonin—making smiling a natural drug.

In a delightful TED video on smiling, presenter Ron Gutman offers some compelling research-based factoids:

  • Babies smile in the womb. They’re born smiling.
  • Blind babies smile in response to the sound of the human voice.
  • Children smile as often as 400 times per day; adults barely twenty.
  • One smile causes the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate—without the calories!
  • And, a key finding: When you smile, you appear to others to be not just more likable and courteous, but also more competent.

Furthermore, according to research Gutman describes, it’s difficult to frown when looking at someone who’s smiling. Smiling might even extend your life. In examining pre-1950s baseball cards of major league players, researchers found that those with a beaming smile lived, on average, seven years longer than those who didn’t smile (79.9 years vs. 72.9 years).

Interestingly, there’s a difference between a genuine smile (one that’s spontaneous) and a deliberate or voluntary smile (unfortunately referred to as a “fake smile,” even though it’s the kind we most often use just to get through the day). What makes a smile genuine? A Scientific American podcast explains:

It’s two muscles working together: The zygomatic major muscle that turns the corners of the lips up, and the orbicularis oculi muscle that squeezes the eyes into the famous fanned wrinkles also known as crow’s feet. Now, it’s this latter muscle that’s involuntary, so the crow’s feet smile is considered the real spontaneous emotion.

Can you distinguish a genuine smile from a fake smile? To find out, take this test. You’ll be shown 20 brief video clips and, for each, you’ll click on either “genuine” or “fake.” You’ll then be told how many you guessed correctly and you’ll be shown which photos were genuine and which weren’t. (I got 13 correct. How about you?)

The next time you feel like frowning, scowling, sneering, or grimacing, perhaps it’d be worth smiling instead.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.