Turn That Frown Upside Down: The Mood-Boosting Benefits of Smiling
We hear a lot these days about various things we can do to change our brain chemistry in hopes of improving how we feel. A lot is written about taking supplements like amino acids, getting regular exercise, paying attention to the quality of our sleep and even our food choices. All good. But there’s one simple exercise you can do that has some really solid scientific underpinning in terms of amping up the “feel good chemistry” in the brain. It’s simply smiling.
Smiling is often thought of as a simple, mundane act that occurs when one is pleased or happy. However, research over the years has demonstrated that this seemingly insignificant gesture has profound physiological and psychological impacts, primarily through the modulation of various neurotransmitters in the brain.
To start, the mere act of smiling has been found to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in feelings of pleasure and reward. Dopamine is known to activate reward circuits in the brain and play a crucial role in motivational behaviors. By increasing dopamine levels, smiling can consequently uplift mood, improve motivation, and increase feelings of happiness and satisfaction.
In addition to dopamine, smiling also triggers the release of serotonin, another crucial neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Low levels of serotonin are associated with mood disorders such as depression, suggesting that activities that boost serotonin levels (like smiling) can have beneficial effects on mood.
Smiling is also known to stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins endorphins are involved in the brain’s reward system, eliciting feelings of joy, reducing stress, and even alleviating physical pain.
Moreover, smiling can also reduce the stress hormone, cortisol. Stress and cortisol have a reciprocal relationship: high stress increases cortisol levels, and high cortisol levels can, in turn, exacerbate stress and negatively affect mood. By reducing cortisol, smiling helps break this cycle, thereby contributing to improved mood and reduced stress.
These alterations in neurotransmitter levels and hormonal balance have substantial benefits, particularly for mood enhancement. Elevated dopamine levels increase pleasure and motivation, while increased serotonin can boost mood and emotional well-being. The rise in endorphins can help alleviate physical and emotional pain, while decreased cortisol can help manage stress.
This phenomenon is supported by a study which found that participants who were instructed to hold a pen in their mouth (inducing a smile-like expression) rated cartoons as funnier compared to those who held the pen between their lips (inhibiting a smile-like expression). This suggests that the physical act of smiling can indeed contribute to a happier mood.
Finally, a meta-analysis confirmed that facial expressions significantly influence emotional experience. It’s important to remember that while smiling can have profound impacts on our neurochemistry and mood, it’s just one aspect of a complex and dynamic system. Nonetheless, the science is clear: smiling can play a powerful role in boosting mood, reducing stress, and enhancing overall well-being. And, to be sure, it’s unlikely that this intervention will have any negative side effects!