Is a smile the world’s most powerful gesture?
For centuries people have been trying to puzzle out why the Mona Lisa became one of the most famous paintings of all time.
One popular theory is: because of her enigmatic smile.
Scientist Andrew Newberg defined the smile as “the symbol that was rated with the highest positive emotional content”.
Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate cannot match.
In a UK study, British researchers found that one smile can provide the same level of brain stimulation as 2,000 chocolate bars; or be as stimulating as receiving 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash.
What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. These are but trifles, to be sure; but scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.– Joseph Addison
The Physiology of Smiling
When we smile, we have two potential muscles at our disposal.
(A) The first one is called the zygomaticus major and it controls the corners of the mouth. When only this muscle is activated in a smile, it’s not a genuine smile. Scientists have dubbed this the ‘social smile’.
(B) The second muscle is the obicularis occuli and it encircles our eye socket. When this muscle joins in the smiling, we can tell that it is a sincere smile. The true smile is also known as the ‘Duchenne smile’, named so after French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne who identified the two types of smiles.
Fake or real – can we tell?
Our brains are very adept at distinguishing between real and fake smiles. Researcher Dr Paula Niedenthal argues there are 3 ways we can do so:
- We consider the situation and judge whether a smile is expected or not.
- Our brain compares the geometry of a person’s face to a standard smile.
- And most importantly: we automatically mimic the smile, to feel for ourselves whether it is a fake or a real smile. We recognise a genuine smile because the right muscles in our face activate in imitation of the other smiling person.
Dr Niedenthal experimented with how critical it is for us to be able to mimic smiles. She and her colleagues asked students to place a pencil between their lips.
This simple action engaged muscles that are normally used to produce a smile. Physically unable to mimic the smiling faces they saw, the students had a much harder time telling which smiles were real and which were fake.
Can you trick your brain into a good mood with a smile?
When you smile, the brain registers the muscle activity and assumes that positive things are happening. The brain doesn’t distinguish its response based on whether you’re using a social or a genuine smile.
Our brains will work up to 31% more effectively if we’re in a good mood.
So, if I smile at you and you see it, or you can hear a smile in someone’s voice [. . .] and you can [see or] hear that I like you, I will actually be able to reach into your brain, flip the positive switch, put you in a better mood [. . .] and increase the chances that you’re gonna collaborate with me.– Chriss Voss, 3 Tips On Negotiations
Voss says that we have no control over our mirror neurons and that they will automatically respond to hearing or seeing a smile.
So, just with the simple act of smiling, you can trigger a good mood as well as get your brain to work more effectively.
A study performed by a group at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown.
A laughter yoga teacher once told me that research has shown that children smile on average upwards of 400 times a day. By comparison, adults smile on average a measly 20 times per day.
No wonder we relegate stress and worry to the realm of ‘growing up’, I thought. If we smiled more, we could be as happy as kids even while having to deal with the burden of being a grownup!
Can smiling affect our health, success and happiness?
Smiling affects our brain through the powerful feedback loop of mimicking a smile when we see one.
Our brain also keeps track of our smiles and knows how often we’ve smiled because this allows the brain to determine what our overall emotional state is.
Smiling leads to a decrease in the stress-induced hormones that negatively affect our physical and mental health. According to recent studies, smiling reduces the stress that we experience in our body and our mind almost as much as getting a good night’s sleep.
Smiling generates more positive emotions in us. This is why we often feel happier around children because they smile so much more than we do!
Even the happiest of us, who average around 40-50 smiles a day, will feel uplifted around kids who are constantly smiling. Scientists have shown that it’s very difficult for us to frown when surrounded by smiling people.
Practising gratitude is the path to a happier life
When you can think of just one thing you’re grateful for every day, it’ll help you to be more positive.
When you sit down to think of just one thing you’re thankful for, your brain experiences the memory of that nice/happy thing like it’s happening to you again and your brain is flooded with happy hormones.
Gratitude logs are an easy way to start practising thankfulness on a daily basis.
How do you use a gratitude log?
In the slot for every day, write what you’re thankful for. You can colour them, shade/embellish them or leave them as they are.
Sometimes I like to colour as I go (easiest with dry mediums like pencils or markers), sometimes the first day I start using it and sometimes at the end of the month when I’ve filled in the whole thing.
Sometimes I’ll use a set colour scheme and other times I’ll just go with whatever I feel like.
You can print this on any kind of paper (regular, watercolour, marker etc.) so that you can use your favourite colouring supplies to colour them (pencils, paints or markers etc).