Each time you smile, a little party happens in your head.
Science has shown that smiling increases your health and happiness on the spot and long-term – maybe even to the point of helping you live longer. Your smile also benefits the people around you.
How Smiling Changes Your Brain
When you smile, your brain releases neuropeptides. There are over 100 neuropeptides. They’re different from neurotransmitters, and their functions are diverse and complex. To oversimplify, neuropeptides are nerve proteins that regulate almost all of the processes of your cells and the way cells communicate with each other. Neuropeptides influence your brain, body, and behavior in many major ways, from analgesia, reward seeking, food intake, metabolism, reproduction, social behaviors, learning and memory to helping negate stress, aiding sleep, and elevating mood.
Because neuropeptides facilitate messaging to the whole body, their discovery allowed science to connect the workings of the mind with the processes of the body. Among many other things, neuropeptides tell your body whether you are happy, sad, angry, depressed, excited, or any other emotional state.
Your brain also releases feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, when a smile flashes across your face. These brain chemicals aid in calming your nervous system by lowering heart rate and blood pressure.
Dopamine gives the brain energy, motivation, a rush, and is necessary for habit change. Endorphins reduce your perception of pain and trigger a positive, euphoric feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. Serotonin plays many different roles, but it can be thought of as the confidence molecule and flows when you feel significant and controls your overall mood.
Each time you smile, a little party happens in your head.
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The Proven Benefits of Smiling
You are more attractive when you smile.
Studies have shown people who smile are viewed by others as more attractive, reliable, relaxed, and sincere. Seeing a smiling face activates the orbitofrontal cortex, the region of your brain that process sensory rewards. This suggests that your brain feels rewarded when you see a smile.
Smiling reduces stress.
One experiment showed that participants elevated heart rates returned to normal quicker when they were told to smile. Science has shown that the act of smiling reduces cortisol levels and can even help you remember better.
Smiling elevates your mood.
Because neurochemicals and peptides are released, putting a smile on your face can trick your body into raising your mood. Dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin raise your spirits and calm your nervous system.
Smiling is contagious.
Smiling not only has the power to elevate your mood, but it can lift the moods of the people around you. Your brain automatically and subconsciously mimics the facial expressions of others as a component of emotional empathy. When you see a facial expression, you recreate that expression in your brain to understand it. It takes conscious effort not to smile back at someone who smiles at you. Go ahead. Try it.
Smiling boosts your immune system.
Smiling can also strengthen your overall health. The act of smiling boosts your immune system because you’re more relaxed, with less cortisol and more happy neurochemicals. One study even found that smiling helps your body produce white blood cells to fight illness.
Even A Fake Smile Has Benefits
OK . What if you’re feeling beyond blue and don’t think you don’t have anything to smile about?
Fake it. That’s right. Limited research (here and here) suggests that it still has benefits.
According to the Facial Feedback Theory, the feedback from your skeletal muscles used in facial expressions plays a causal role in regulating emotion and behavior.
Basically, there are two types of smiles. A forced smile, like for a photo or when you’re being polite, only uses the mouth to shape the smile. In a spontaneous, genuine smile, called a Duchenne smile, the mouth muscles and those encircling the eyes are engaged.
Experiments found that even fake smiles produced lower heart rates and eased stress.
In the post, Written All Over Your Face, I quote Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking as saying:
…the information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on inside our mind. In a certain sense, it is what going on inside our mind.”
Can Smiling Help You Live Longer and Happier?
There is evidence to suggest that the intensity of a person’s smile can help predict their life’s satisfaction and lifespan.
In one study, researchers analyzed the smiles of 230 Major League Baseball players from the 1952 player register. After enlarging the headshots from the players’ cards, researchers assessed their smiles—categorizing them as “no smile,” “partial smile” and a “Duchenne smile.”
They found that players with more authentic smiles were more likely to live longer than those who were only partially smiling, or not grinning at all. On average, the players with no smiles lived for 72.9 years, a full two years less than those who exhibited partial smiles. Those with full smiles lived to 79.9 years.
In a similar study looking at yearbook pictures, scientists coded the smiles of 114 women who had their college yearbook photo taken sometime during 1958 and 1960. Three of the young women didn’t smile, 50 had Duchenne smiles, and 61 had courtesy smiles.
The genuine smile group were more likely to get and stay married and had higher score evaluations of physical and emotional well-being more than 30 years after the college photos were taken.
These studies were small and isolated, but – I don’t about you – I’m going to keep smiling!
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