I’m a smiler. Always have been.
From my early awkward elementary school pictures that display large, out-of-place adult teeth to my teenage jobs greeting customers in grocery stores, I have always displayed my happiness to the world with every muscle on my face.
Scientists call this kind of smile a “Duchenne smile”—named after the French scientist who discovered three different types of smiles displayed by humans, which can each promote different emotional messages internally and externally.
The Science Behind Smiling and Happiness
In 1989, Psychologist Robert Zajonc first revealed through his studies that the act of smiling produces positive mood benefits. Therefore, people who smile more should theoretically feel happier than those who tend to lean on the serious side.
But, the catch is that this rule seems to apply more to introspective people than to people who are not in touch with their emotions. In order to benefit emotionally from the act of smiling, people need to think about the act happening.
I think that’s why this summer, when I re-chipped of my front tooth (the dental filling covering a previous chip popped right off) and I began to hide my bright smile, I also began to lose confidence in my entire self.
For me, smiling was an everyday part of life necessary to boost my feel-good hormones and present a happy image of myself to the world.
Now, my dental damage is creating problems for my happiness levels. It’s time for this busy mom to get to the dentist and get my smile back. Which brings me to…
Dental Health Affects Your Smile
Make sure to take the best care of your teeth as you can, otherwise you may end up in a situation like mine that makes you feel self-conscious about your smile. Then, you’re less likely to fully smile “big,” and therefore you may feel less happy.
A confident smile can remain a beneficial asset to both your outer appearance and your internal feelings of well-being if you take care of your oral health.
3 Reasons to Smile More
Don’t just take it from me—psychologists and sociologists have proven through numerous studies that smiling carries all kinds of benefits that impact your well-being.
Whether you think smiling more might increase your emotional wellness or you’re just curious about how the simple act works behind-the-scenes in your brain, here are three ways that smiling can improve your life:
1. Full-face “Real” Smiles Require You to Process Happiness
The phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” may only get you so far. In the 19th century, Guillaume Duchenne, a French scientist who studied facial psychology in depth, discovered differences in the way the brain controls and processes “fake” smiles versus “real” smiles.
The “Duchenne smile” was named after this scientist, who concluded that a “real smile” involves facial muscles from all over the face – not just the mouth.
Because “real” smiles use involuntary, emotion-controlled muscles that involve more parts of the brain, there is a psychological difference between the former and “fake” smiles that involve only manipulation of the mouth muscles alone.
In order to manipulate the required eye and cheek muscles to display a fully defined “Duchenne smile,” you must first process the emotion of happiness. This emotional processing is required to perform a full smile, and that’s how it triggers emotional change.
So yes, you can smile your way to happiness, but only if you put forth the emotional effort it takes to make your entire face smile by feeling joy. Saying “cheese” and simply grinning in photos will not achieve the same effects on your emotional well-being as smiles that are felt in the heart.
2. Smiling improves your ability to overcome stress.
People who smile with their full faces often may live less stressful lives, according to a Kansas State University study.
KSU psychological researchers Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman examined the benefits of smiling on stress-relief behaviors and found that those who often smiled genuinely (and were aware they were doing it) were able to manage stressful situations better than those who didn’t.
The KSU study found that the positive emotions required to form a full-face or “Dechenne smile” create neural pathways that promote emotional responses to stress.
But it’s also important that you realize you are smiling so much. Similar to the preliminary findings of Zoljanc, this research demonstrated more of an effect in people who were more introspective and thought about the happiness associated with their smiling.
3. Other People’s’ Smiles Can Make You Feel Good, Too
The smiles on other peoples’ faces can have a positive impact on your emotions as well, another study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found. The team of researchers, in this case, wanted to find out whether the type of smile someone else gives you has a measurable impact on your emotional well-being.
Participants in the study who received reward and affiliation smiles (generally using the entire face and conveying kindness, happiness and social affiliation) produced fewer stress hormones than those who received dominance smiles (which tend to be focused in the mouth area and convey competition).
Another study presented UFC fighters with images of each other before a fight, in which some images showed dominant or aggressive smiles, while others displayed warmer, more welcoming smiles from opponents.
When the fights began, the fighters who had seen photos of their opponents with warm smiles did not fight as well, but those who saw dominant expressions displayed on their opponents’ faces were braced to fight more readily.
If it wasn’t already obvious, it should now be clear that smiling is associated with increased happiness levels inside yourself and in those around you. Everyone can do it, even if not physically.
Since “Duchenne smiles” involve emotional triggers from the limbic system, even those who may not outwardly look like they are smiling can feel the effects of happiness that come from smiling.
However, even if science says that smiling makes us happy, social norms may dictate otherwise.
Smile Meaning Changes in Different Settings and Cultures
In some cultures, smiles carry social meanings that are looked down upon. Often, these beliefs about smiling state that the act represents low intelligence or moral standing. In some countries and settings, smiling may signify weakness or an unclean motive.
Even if your own culture views smiling as an expression of joy and acceptance, peers might look down on smiling in settings where those feelings are not considered appropriate, like at a funeral or during an argument.
It’s important to remember that the seemingly simple facial expression can be interpreted in numerous ways, despite its ability to increase internal happiness.
So, Start Smiling More
Did you know that forcing yourself to really smile instead of just “grinning to bear it” for show can make you feel happier?
If you aren’t a big smiler, try getting in front of the mirror and forcing a smile. Examine your reflection. Are there visible smile lines surrounding your eyes or do your cheeks visibly rise?
If not, think about the way you might smile when seeing a long-lost friend or being surprised with your favorite treat. It’s these kinds of smiles that are good for us.
If you practice using your “smile muscles,” it will begin to feel more natural over time, and you may even find yourself smiling more in your everyday life.
If you’re embarrassed about your smile, like I currently am, also do the mirror exercise. Try comparing your non-smiling serious face to that of a large happy grin, imperfections at all. Which reflected person looks happier? Which would you rather greet if you were having a bad day? Chances are, even with your perceived smile imperfections, the smiling reflection is a winner.
Or, as a last resort, think of it this way: you could, at any moment, be caught on candid camera.