Does Smiling Make You Happy?

It's plain to see that smiling has many positive effects, but can the act of smiling itself generate feelings of well being? As far back as the 19th century, Charles Darwin and psychologist William James suggested that facial expressions can have an effect on emotions. This "facial feedback loop" has been tested in modern times and, as it turns out, people don't just smile when they're happy; they're happier when they smile.

Many studies have been done to test the connection between smiling and happiness. Some had participants hold chopsticks or pens in their mouths in ways that formed positive and negative expressions. Another involved three groups that were shown a series of photographs depicting a wide variety of facial expressions. The first group just looked at the pictures, the second was asked to mimic the expressions and the third copied the faces in the photos while looking in a mirror. The people who reported feeling the best at the end of the exercise were those who watched themselves smile, although participants who smiled without the mirror also experienced a mood boost.

Other studies focused on the body's reaction to smiling. By monitoring heart rate and questioning subjects about their stress levels, researchers discovered that people who smiled during tense or uncomfortable situations experienced lower heart rates, less stress and less pain than those who didn't smile or who frowned. This isn't unusual when you consider the fact that smiling has been shown to lower the amount of stress hormones in the body, including cortisol, which is responsible for the elevated heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar that you experience during a "fight or flight" response. When levels of cortisol remain consistently high, the body becomes exhausted, so smiling may make you healthier as well as happier.

In the late 1980s, a psychologist named Robert Zajonc proposed a theory that connects smiling with brain temperature. Dr. Zajonc hypothesizes that "cooler" brains lead to calmer moods. He claims that the muscle contractions involved in smiling cause blood restriction in facial veins, which in turn leads to less blood traveling to a major artery called the internal carotid artery. This vessel is responsible for bringing a lot of blood to the brain. Less blood coming in means a "cooler" brain environment, thus a better mood for those who smile versus those who don't.

Whether or not this is true, flexing your smile muscles does seem to signal the brain that you're happy about something, or at least that there's something you should be happy about. Plus, the positive social connections that are made when you smile can help reinforce your own feelings of happiness and well being. Flashing a grin or sharing a laugh with those around you creates an upbeat feeling, making it easier to manage stressful or upsetting situations.

Everyone experiences bouts of sadness and unhappy times. While smiling in and of itself can't make these things go away, it's good to know that old sayings like "put on a happy face" and "whistle while you work" have a grain of truth in them. If you can manage a smile during your darkest days, chances are you'll find yourself more able to weather life's storms.

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