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The science of smiling

It's not just for photos—research shows that smiling has knock-on effects for the brain.

Laura Sugden
Lead Copywriter and Health Coach
June 15, 2020
3 min read

There are several cringe-inducing phrases about the science of smiling that we’ve all had to endure at some point. But cliched things like, “just smile and nod,” and “grin and bear it,” are actually based in truth. Aside from making you look fantastic for the ‘gram, the health benefits of smiling are huge—and all you have to do to get them, is smile. 

This rearrangement of your facial features can have huge knock-on effects on the brain, in your body, and out into the world around you. It’s like triggering a butterfly effect of good things.

Here’s an experiment. Try smiling now. Keep smiling while you read the rest - and then see how you feel :-)

Smiling is a natural high

Every time you smile, the feel-good neurotransmitters get released - endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These puppies are the governors of all the good feelings; relaxation, stress-relief, sleep, relaxation, happiness…

Smiling is an antidepressant

Serotonin is your body’s own mood-lifter and antidepressant. In fact, part of how pharmaceutical antidepressants work is by influencing the serotonin levels in the brain - which, you guessed it, are also impacted by smiling.

Smiling is a stress reliever

The way smiling impacts stress is a bit different from what you might expect. As well as helping it by triggering all the feel-good chemicals, it also impacts your heart rate, which helps you bounce back from stress more quickly.

In this study from 2007, subjects taking on stressful tasks reported feeling the same stress levels during it - regardless of their smiles; but, those who were smiling the most were able to recover from the stress a lot faster (returning their heart rates to normal).

Smiling eases physical pain

The endorphins that are triggered when you smile act as a natural pain reliever. So the phrase, “grin and bear it”, is true! If you smile through the pain, it doesn’t hurt as much - because of those magic endorphins.

Smiling says a lot about you (and it’s all good)

A smile also makes other people see you as more attractive, more approachable, more reliable, and more genuine. This study showed that the sight of a smiling face activates the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) - the reward-centre of the brain. Meaning that when we see a smiling face, it’s more attractive to us and we feel rewarded. So, you could say that a smile is a gift.

Smiling is the best kind of contagion

As humans, we have a natural propensity towards mimicking those around us - even if we don’t realise it. If someone in the room is smiling, you’ll naturally mirror their smile - and maybe even experience their emotions, making you more empathetic.

Smiling keeps you healthy

Have you ever noticed how your happiest friends get ill the least? Thanks to smiling’s release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, smiley people are more relaxed, meaning their immune systems can function properly.

Are you still smiling?? See. Told you you’d feel good.

FOR THE NERDY: The Science of Smiling (Psychology Today)

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