I think it’s fair to say that 2021 is not quite off to the start that we had hoped for, but I am a firm believer in finding the positives and for me this month is no different. We are living through a pandemic - unprecedented times - nothing like this has ever happened in my lifetime. The past 10 months has been special and unique and I believe that one year from now, when life is starting to resemble what we remember, we will look back on this time with appreciation and gratitude - that we were made to stop, we were made to adapt, and we learnt to appreciate our freedom for what it is… a gift.
As we go through these ups and downs, we’re not always surrounded by positivity and we may have to search a bit further to find the things that make us happy. However, one of the first things I noticed during the March lockdown - and one that I am pleased to say seems to still be with us - is that on my daily wander to the woods with my little boy, or answering the front door to another delivery driver, or popping to the corner shop - everyone seems more willing to make eye-contact, crack a smile and wish each other a lovely day. I am definitely doing it more myself - and I feel so much happier for it.
The Power Of Smiling
Many see smiling simply as an involuntary response to things that bring you joy or laughter. While this observation is certainly true, what most people overlook is that smiling can be just as much a conscious and powerful choice.
Maybe it’s because we feel like we’re all in this together, but is it just me or do these everyday smiles seem to be more genuine and less forced than before? And that makes them all the more powerful.
Let’s look at why.
The Science Of A Smile
A genuine smile is spontaneous and it is the smile that best demonstrates satisfaction or happiness. This is the smile that reaches your eyes – and that’s how you know it is genuine. A really genuine smile actually has its own name. It’s called the ‘Duchenne Smile’ and it activates 36 muscles.
When you smile a genuine smile, your eyes will also appear half shut. This is because at the final stage of the smile, the muscles around the eyes, called the orbicular muscles, contract. This ‘half shut’ look is actually a muscular trigger that activates centres in the brain which regulate the production of pleasant emotions. Which is why they say genuine smiles release endorphins.
We FEEL better when we smile
A genuine smile is linked to the part in our brain that manages our pleasant emotions, suggesting that not only do we smile genuinely when we feel good, but also a genuine smile can make us feel good.
Try it out:
Smile broadly now for ten seconds. Happy endorphins will be released. You may find it's in the form of amusement when you finally release the rictus grin, but those are the endorphins taking action!
Now... smile the same broad smile (go on, as big as you can) and then try and think of something negative while you are doing it. I'll bet you can't!
Smiling stimulates our brain reward mechanism in a way that even chocolate cannot match. British researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate; they also showed that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to £16,000 in cash. No wonder kids are so happy - they average over 400 smiles a day!
And unlike lots of chocolate, lots of smiling can actually make you healthier. Smiling has been associated with: reduced stress hormone levels (like cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine), increased health and mood enhancing hormone levels (like endorphins), and lowered blood pressure. A simple smile can trigger the release of neural communication boosting neuropeptides as well as mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Think of smiling like a natural anti-depressant.
It has also been shown that the act of smiling actually helps the human immune system to function more effectively. It is thought that when you smile, immune function improves because you are more relaxed (thanks to the release of certain neurotransmitters).
If that’s not enough, smiling also makes us look good in the eyes of others. A recent Penn State University study confirmed that when we smile we not only appear more likeable and courteous, but we’re actually perceived to be more competent.
Smile and the world smiles with you!
The part of your brain that is responsible for your controlling the facial expression of smiling is an unconscious automatic response area. Meaning that other people’s smiles actually suppress the control we usually have over our facial muscles, compelling us to smile too. Yes, it is scientifically proven that smiles are "contagious!"
Research also shows that it’s very difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles. Smiling not only has the power to elevate your mood, but it can also change the moods of others and make things happier.
So this is what we know:
- When you smile... you look and feel better.
- When you smile... others smile too.
- When others smile... they look and feel better too.
And that’s a superpower that we could all do with right now.
Want to learn more?
- Watch Ron Gutman’s Ted Talk on ‘The hidden power of smiling’ - prepare to flex a few facial muscles as you learn more about this evolutionarily contagious behaviour.
- Listen to this fantastic BBC podcast about why a smile makes us feel better.
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