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Smiling - The Curve That Sets Everything Straight

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The smile itself often receives little attention, always remaining somewhat unjustly in the shadow of its big sister, laughter. Nevertheless, a smile can change our mood, brighten up our day, and as an essential part of social interaction, help us connect with other people. Research says that a smile has the power to reduce stress due to the release of endorphins. Smiling does not just affect the smiler: When we smile at a person, they will most likely smile back. Why is this so? What happens in our brains when we smile? Are people who smile happier people? We spoke to experts in the fields of happiness research, mental health, and dating and found plenty of reasons to worship our own smiles just as much as Mona Lisa’s.

“The more we smile, the better we feel”

Dr Angel Adams has worked as a clinician for over 30 years. Originally licensed as a Clinical Psychologist in the US, she is also a chartered and registered Practitioner Psychologist with the British Psychological Society.

What happens in the brain when we smile? Which neurons are activated?

Whenever we smile, we activate the “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Smiling can bring on serotonin release and acts as a mood lifter. Serotonin is found in many pharmaceutical drugs given to people who suffer from depression. Brain research indicates that smiling can produce endorphins in our brain that act as a natural morphine or opium. It’s the same good feeling we have after exercising, meditating, falling in love, or eating chocolate, to name a few. When our brains feel happy, endorphins are produced and neuronal signals are transmitted to our facial muscles to trigger a smile. This is the start of the positive feedback loop of happiness. Smiling also activates the release of neuropeptides that help ward off stress. When we smile, it can actually relax our body as well as lower our heart rate and blood pressure. Additionally, smiling helps to generate more positive emotions within us, and that’s why we often feel happier when we are around people who are happy. For example, we feel happier being around children. Children tend to smile on average around 400 times a day. The average adult only smiles 20 to 50 times.

We automatically smile when someone else smiles at us. Why is this so? How is this connected to our mirror neurons?

When we see people smile at us, it stimulates our mirror neurons, which suppresses our facial muscle control and triggers a smile. According to Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, mirror neurons are a small circuit of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. They are activated when we perform a certain action like smiling and also when we observe someone else smiling. These neurons clearly mirror the behavior of the person or persons being observed. As a child clinical psychologist who specializes in working with autistic children, I have learned that these kids struggle to some degree or another with understanding and empathizing with other people’s mental states, which makes it difficult for them to understand social interactions. I spend a good deal of time working with parents to learn the tools to help their child develop the emotional and neurological hardware they need to connect with others. This means a lot of practice in mirroring and smiling at the appropriate times with their child when they have trouble understanding and expressing feelings in order to build a stronger connection.

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You’ve written on your blog: “By using mindfulness practices throughout the day you can actually change the patterns in your brain.” Does this also apply to smiling? If yes, how so?

The past few decades of neuroscience research introduced the concept of neuroplasticity, which means that our experiences can shape the structure in our brain. This is an exciting scientific discovery because it means we can purposely change the patterns in our brain if we focus our attention in a purposeful way. For example, people who meditate can develop more peace, joy, and focused awareness. This also applies to smiling and laughing. The more we smile, the better we feel!

What are the benefits of smiling?

There are many social and psychological benefits of smiling, using humour, and enjoying the experience of laughter. A smile and some laughter can lighten and brighten the day. Smiling and laughing together is a way to be connected. It breaks down barriers and lightens our mood. Smiling and laughing invoke feelings of happiness and joy. Laughing is uplifting and takes us to new heights where we can even gain new insights. Joy and laughter can promote creative thinking and enhance problem solving skills. Thanks to the positive feedback loop of smiling, we can alter our brain's emotional processing pathway to feel happier with a simple smile. So, if you want to be happy, never get dressed without a smile!

“A smile can be both an expression of happiness and a pathway to get there”

Joe Hoare is a leading laughter yoga practitioner. His work activates clients’ zest for life, whether as individuals, teams or conferences.

Can we gain happiness through a smile?

Thousands of people over thousands of years have pondered how to be happy, so there are many angles and countless studies on this topic. There is no silver bullet. However, smiling does have the potential and ability to make us happier, particularly, though not exclusively, when our smile is a genuine smile or genuinely intended. Hypothetically, if the smile is a warm genuine smile of generous triumph, of overcoming adversity, of rising above circumstances, then yes, that particular smile can bring you happiness – not because of the smile itself, but as a manifestation of inner peacefulness and possibly serenity. All happiness investigators are likely to agree that inner peacefulness and serenity are parts of happiness.

What’s the connection between a smile and happiness?

A smile can be both an expression of happiness and a pathway to get there. Smiling induces biochemical changes that can lead us to enjoying the moment more, and to having an extended experience of prolonged enjoyment – i.e., the effect of smiling can last longer than the duration of the actual smile itself. The act of putting a smile on our face has a psychological dimension and in itself can bring about a mood shift and create a greater sense of well- being. This kind of well-being is in the same family group as happiness – they are sometimes closely related. It is likely that when we are feeling happy, we smile more. However, studies also show that smiling first is an effective way to feel happier. Basically, just smile warmly as much as you can, as often as possible.

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What effect does smiling have on others? How are we perceived when smiling?

A smile is a universally recognized facial expression. Depending on context, we are perceived warmly when we smile. There is some interesting research from Harvard on how smiling is contagious and generates ‘pools’ of positive emotion. When done appropriately, smiling is a measure of appreciation, recognition, encouragement and support. A genuine smile might be so small it is almost invisible or so big it is a huge grin. Assuming it is done with sensitivity to and awareness of the particular circumstances, a smile elicits a warm and engaging response. We generally respond well to smiling. A warm smile is a social connector and induces a perception of genuineness, trustworthiness and empathy.

You’ve written about a laughter yoga exercise on your blog which involves smiling. Can you explain how the exercise works and what effect it has?

The exercise on my blog and Youtube channel works because of the biochemical and mood-lifting qualities of smiling. The exercise is based on a 1988 experiment by Professor Frach and Associates where they documented and observed the impact and duration of the act of smiling, even though because of how they set the experiment up, participants didn’t realize they were smiling – they were simply asked to hold a pencil in their teeth. This is the simplest smiling exercise I have found and one reason it is so good is because it is such a simple exercise – just hold a pencil in and across your teeth, no lips, for 10 seconds or more. It is a simpler exercise to understand when you see it. The best explanation of how it works and what effect it has, is by doing it. I often find that its impact is immediate when done in groups or one-on- one (Skype) sessions because people see someone else, have a chance to share experiences, and get immediate validation of the effectiveness of the exercise.

“Smiling increases people’s energy levels”

Karen Perkins is a Life, Career & Business Coach based in Sheffield UK, coaching 1:1 in person and by phone or skype globally. With a degree level coaching qualification, she loves walking, creativity & tech innovation and helping her clients have a great work-life balance.

Can the change of an attitude begin with a smile? In your opinion, is there a connection?

The smile which triggers a change of attitude can come from both coach and coachee. Just think about a time when you felt apprehensive, and as your confidence grew, you smiled with relief, growing confidence and security. Coaching training is essential, showing one how to build rapport, rise above any unconscious bias, and ‘start from a clean sheet’. Always use smiling and gentle appropriate laughter to put someone at ease, watching for cues from their body language and words. Smiling and laughter is important as coaching is about personal development, not counselling and it’s great if it can be fun, as smiling increases people’s energy levels. When someone smiles back authentically, clients often begin to mirror that back. Think about how babies respond to cooing and smiling.

Can we build personal confidence by smiling?

If clients have low confidence and self-esteem, smiling can build up the positive neural pathways in their brain. Scientists have shown that brain activity, and the release of ‘wellbeing hormones’ like dopamine and serotonin can be increased by practicing smiling. Keeping a ‘humour diary’ about 3 things a day one found funny may be helpful. Looking back over them and gently acknowledging that one can begin to find humour even in difficulty, builds a positive habit.

However, as a coach one should take their responsibility very seriously and in the initial agreement and taster always check if people have any issues around depression and their triggers. A coach should find a way using coaching tools to see what brings the patients out smiling and confident. A confidence questionnaire and laughter exercises before important events, presentations or interviews can help, for example. Appropriateness is key.

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Is smiling a part of any life-coaching principle you believe in?

Researchers say their findings suggest smiling during brief periods of stress may help reduce the body's stress response, regardless of whether the person actually feels happy or not. It’s a tool to put people at ease so coaches can use questioning skills to tease out clients real coaching goals, motivations and desire to act to achieve them. At the start of a session, my clients always feedback on any successes or blocks. Watching how they smile, tells you a lot: the laugh and smile of pleasure at success and the self-mocking smile of ‘nearly’ must try harder to help unlock actions.

Regarding the people seeking your help, does smiling play a role in your sessions?

Yes, definitely. Smiling by a coach has lots of roles like motivating, reassuring, showing interest, mirroring and building someone’s self-esteem. Change comes from careful questioning by a coach and from an authentic stance and grows naturally. People don’t like being patronized, so a coach’s smile needs to be truly authentic and with a purpose. It is advisable to always check back with yourself after a session as to whether you were effective in your coaching style.

One exercise is to practice smiling at yourself in the mirror regularly and giving self-affirmations. Exercising your smile muscles, I call it. If people are low or self-conscious, another good exercise is to randomly smile at strangers, including smiling while thanking people. This goes along with gratitude therapy and unlocks their own self-esteem. By smiling at themselves and others, it seems to unlock their self-compassion and they build on that to grow their confidence. Although this is describing a process, it sometimes happens by itself in a successful session, they do not necessarily notice it. But clients do say they feel better or more positive.

Fun and laughter can build creativity, so use cheerful motivation in your tone of voice where appropriate.

“A smile is your not-so-secret-weapon”

Ané Auret is a leading Post-Divorce Dating Coach who specializes in supporting her clients to confidently get back into dating, attract the right person for them and ultimately find love again. She is based in the UK and offers virtual coaching services to clients worldwide.

When it comes to dating, body language is very important. What can a smile signal?

When it comes to dating, and especially first impressions, a genuine smile is your not-so-secret weapon. It signals that you are interested, open to creating connection and approachable. It radiates confidence, a sense of ease and makes people around you feel good to be in your company. The combination of a warm smile, eye contact and a friendly compliment could be all you need to break the ice and start a conversation. It’s also the most natural, free and instant beauty tip you could ask for.

If you’re feeling a little unsure or anxious, just smile. The science behind a smile means that you will instantly feel more confident.

Can a smile make us more attractive? In other words, is dating easier for people who always have a smile on their lips?

Your dating success is connected to how you perceive yourself and how you feel about yourself. Somebody who is comfortable in their own skin, happy in oneself and communicates this through his/her smile, will find the dating scene easier and more fun to navigate. Your smile is worth a thousand words. It’s the most natural way of communicating inner confidence, and it’s well- known that confidence in either sex is one of the most powerfully attractive qualities you can have. Smiling doesn’t just make others feel good around us, it makes us feel good too and easier to attract and interact with a potential partner.

We live in an age of dating apps and limited attention spans, where we decide within seconds whether we find a person interesting or not. What role does a smile play, and what difference does it make?

When it comes to online dating, there is nothing more important than your pictures to create the best possible first impression. It’s important to provide a range of pictures of yourself that definitely includes at least one of you smiling. A picture with a genuine smile can create instant connection - just like you would offline. A smile lights up your eyes and shows a little bit of your personality, too. Potential matches who feel that instant connection will stick around longer to find out more.

References Fry, W. (1979). Mirth and the human cardiovascular system. In H. Mindess & J. Turek (Eds.), The study of humor (pp. 56-61). Antioch University Press. Neuman, Inga (2008) Brain oxytocin: a key regulator of emotional and social behaviours in both females and males. Journal of Neuroendrocon Siegel, Daniel (2012) The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Livingstone, L. (2008) A child of our time. U.K.: Bantam Press.


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