Mental Health Month: The Positive Impacts of Smiling | Dr. Ana Castilla

Mental Health Month: The Positive Impacts of Smiling

This is a tough time for just about everyone. The novel coronavirus has changed the way we live our daily lives and leaves us with uncertainty over the future. With lockdowns, fears over health for ourselves and our loved ones, and financial and other stressors, we could all use some positivity right now.

So Mental Health Month couldn’t come at a better time. During the month of May, it’s a good time to take stock of your mental health, seek help if needed, and build healthy habits. Some things you can do include exercising regularly, eating well, getting plenty of quality sleep every night, and connecting with friends and family often (even if that means over FaceTime or a simple phone call).

There’s something else you can do to increase positivity, and it’s free, easy, and takes no time at all: Smile!

Smiling Lifts Your Mood and Makes You Feel Better

When you smile, you’re not just moving the corners of your lips up. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye, like releasing a cascade of neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin and dopamine.

Serotonin is associated with many things, including memory, digestion, and sleep, but is probably best known for mood regulation. It’s so important, in fact, that many first-line drugs to treat depression (SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) target serotonin, working to increase its availability to neurons. In short, serotonin is linked to good mood and optimism.

Dopamine is another “feel good” chemical in the brain, which is associated with the brain’s reward system and is important in motor control and movement, too. Together, serotonin and dopamine work to lift your mood – and you can put them to work right now simply by smiling.

Even a Fake Smile Can Make You Happier

What if you’re feeling down? Smile anyway – it can still lift your mood. That’s what a 2019 meta analysis of 138 studies involving over 11,000 subjects found. (Find that study here.) Though the effect detected was “small,” it was found that the act of smiling can make a person feel happier. This is based on the facial feedback hypothesis, which has its origins in observations by Charles Darwin, interestingly enough.

(P.S. Watch your face – smiling is not the only expression that can affect mood. The same study found that frowning made subjects sadder while scowling made them angrier. And other studies have supported the use of Botox for frown lines as a treatment for depression, as it can inhibit a person from making negative faces that could lead to negative moods. Study here.)

Smiling is a Natural Painkiller

In addition to serotonin and dopamine, endorphins are also released when you smile. This class of neurotransmitters works to inhibit signals of pain in the body, much in the way that opioids do. The effect is like a painkiller, only it’s completely natural and safe.

Plus, like serotonin and dopamine, endorphins also provide a “feel good” lift, too. If you’ve ever heard of a “runner’s high,” that’s a reference to endorphins released during intense physical exercise that can induce a feeling of elation or even euphoria. Those same chemicals are released in the brain when you smile!

Smiling Helps You Manage Stress – and Helps the Heart

Stress over the long term is damaging to the body and mind, and it’s something we should all actively manage for better physical and mental health. But did you know that smiling during short periods of stress can help you get through that stress better and faster? A 2012 study found that participants showed better results after recovering from a stressful task if they had been smiling during it, compared to those who maintained a neutral face. The researchers concluded that smiling during stressful situations could boost heart health. (Study here.)

In addition to this stress regulation mechanism, smiling may be good for the heart because it also causes the body to relax. This leads to lower blood pressure, which is good for your heart’s health.

Smiling Makes You More Attractive and Trustworthy

People are drawn to other people who smile. People who smile are seen as less threatening and more pleasant to be around, and we are more likely to want to get to know people we see smiling than people we see scowling.

That hardly seems like something that needs to be proven by science. Yet it has been, many times. One study from 2012 found that subjects judged images of people to be more attractive the stronger their smile was. Another found that not only was smiling correlated with perceptions of attractiveness, but with trustworthiness, too! (Studies here and here.)

Smiling May Help You Live Longer

A 2009 study examined occurrence and intensity of smiles of 230 Major League Baseball players from the 1952 Baseball Register, and concluded that the subjects’ smiles were correlated with longer lifespan. (Study here.)

Now this doesn’t mean that you can simply sit and smile and expect to live longer. But it does demonstrate the connection between happiness or positive mood and good health associated with longevity, and it’s good motivation to find things in your life to be happy about.

Spread It Around! A Smile is Contagious

Not only can you benefit from the power of a smile, but you can spread the benefits around! Smiling is contagious, something that’s likely not a surprise to you. Most of us have had the experience of seeing someone else smile and then smiling ourselves. Part of the reason for this is the natural human impulse for mimicry, where we automatically and unconsciously mirror back expressions of other people. (Study here.)

That means you can do a lot of good this month not only for yourself and your mental health, but for everyone you meet, walk past, or video chat with. Smile and the world smiles with you – and everyone benefits!