Smiling Your Way to a Healthier Mind

Being happy makes you smile, but does smiling make you happy? A study published in the Psychological Science Journal shows that a smile, even when it’s forced, can bring down stress levels. When participants were forced to hold a smile with a chopstick in their mouth while multitasking, their heartrate as well as self-reported stress levels went down significantly compared to the control. So, what are the implications of this? It means that if you are stressed, you can force yourself to smile in that moment, and experience actual stress relief from just doing that.

If you are in the middle of a busy day and suddenly notice your face has a scowl or frown on it, take a second to relax your face and smile. Notice if you feel a bit better.

If a smile can make you happier, can frowning make you less happy? It appears that the answer is yes! In 2009, a study co-authored by Michael Lewis at the University of Cardiff in Whales found that people who had Botox that impeded their ability to frown were happier, on average, than the people who had the ability to frown. The results were based on and anxiety and depression questionnaire. The people with Botox did not report feeling more attractive, which means the happiness boost did not come from thinking they look better.

It appears that the way we feel is not restricted to what’s going on in our brains. Certain body movements and facial expressions create a feedback loop that can intensify the feelings.

In a similar study at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, people with and without Botox were asked to mimic angry faces in an MRI machine. They had much less activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus, and brain stem than the participants without Botox.

Expressing more emotions on your face basically intensifies them in your brain. A study was published in The Journal of Pain in 2008 that showed that people who frowned during an unpleasant experience felt more pain that the people who held their face still. The researchers applied heat to the subjects’ forearms and asked them to either make unhappy, neutral, or relaxed faces. Unsurprisingly, the subjects who made negative facial expressions also reported feeling more pain. It’s possible from these conclusions, that people would not be able to feel as much pain if they can’t express it.

Now you may be thinking, well I’ll just never frown again, and then I’ll never feel bad again! Hoorah! Well, not so fast. Suppressing emotions might not be such a good thing either. The work of psychologist Judith Grob of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands shows that this suppressed negativity may “leak” into other realms of a person’s life. She asked subjects to look at disturbing images and not express emotion on their face. The subjects that were asked to not show emotion did feel less disgust. However, the subjects who had suppressed their emotions also performed more poorly on memory tasks and chose more negative words in word completion tasks than the subjects who were allowed to express their emotions. That means that people who constantly suppress their real emotions may start to see the whole world in a more negative way. In other words, when the face can’t express emotion, the emotion seeks to be expressed in another way.

Our facial expressions and emotions are connected in this mysterious way that certainly gives us a lot to think about. This group of findings tells us that perhaps, if we force a smile, we can trick our brain into thinking we are happy. A genuine smile is even better, though. If you are feeling happy, let yourself smile and that could intensify that feeling for you.

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