“When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”
The song was released in 1928 and was originally sung by Texas jazz musician, Seger Ellis. Since then it has been recorded hundreds of times, most famously by Louis Armstrong. But is it true? If you smile, do people smile back at you?
A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology had participants look at photographs of men and women showing various facial expressions. Researchers watched the faces of the participants as they looked at images of people expressing anger, puzzlement, laughter, annoyance, and so on and perceived various different reactions. In almost every case, a picture of a person smiling evoked a smile from the viewer.
Smile, and the chances are that you will receive a smile in return.
But a smile is not simply a reflex indicator of some happy or humorous thought. Researchers at the University of Kansas gave volunteers various stressful experiments to perform, such as plunging their hands into a bucket of ice or drawing shapes in a mirror using their less dominant hand. Participants were asked to perform these tasks wearing a frown, no expression, or a smile. They found that the smilers displayed less reaction to stress than their less happy colleagues.
In other studies smiling has been shown to lower heart rates and blood pressure, even to boost the immune system.
A study using photos of American baseball players on trading cards showed that those with the largest smiles lived an average of seven years longer than their unsmiling peers, while a similar study of women in high school year books found that those with bigger, better smiles tended to have happier and healthier lives than those who didn’t smile.
So smiling is not only contagious, it is good for you. But the real question is this: “Does smiling make you happy?”
Surely happiness makes you smile, rather than the other way round. Isn’t smiling a result of happiness, rather than the cause of it?
Researchers have for some years known that the physical act of smiling causes the brain to release endorphins such as dopamine and serotonin which have a positive effect on happiness but recent studies at the University of South Australia go even further.
Participants in the study were asked to fake a smile by putting a pencil between their teeth. The results were that the simple act of triggering the ‘smiling’ muscles set off the same reactions as a genuine smile. In other words even this ‘fake’ smile fooled the brain into believing that they were happy and released the same endorphins as it would have had the smile resulted from a genuinely happy event.
Lead researcher Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos said, “When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world in a positive way. In our research we found that when you forcefully practice smiling it stimulates the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain – which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.” *
Now this may seem a fairly trivial piece of research but it could in fact have important bearings on mental health issues. If artificial stimuli can be used to ‘fool’ the brain into believing it is happy, then it could unlock pathways to relief of depression and other mental health problems.
So keep on smiling – even if you don’t mean it.
*From the journal Experimental Psychology