The Science of the Irresistible Smile: How a Smile Makes Us Happy

/The Science of the Irresistible Smile: How a Smile Makes Us Happy

The Science of the Irresistible Smile: How a Smile Makes Us Happy

Come on – Admit it!

Just looking at this smiling face
lifts your spirits!

You can’t help it! We’re hardwired that way. In fact, even a 30 millisecond glance at a happy face has the power to lighten our mood (source). Neuroscientists explain a smile’s potent impact  is the work of  “mirror neurons” that wire our brains to mimic the emotion in front of us (s0urce). Advertisers call the effect “smile appeal” and use it ubiquitously from the merry supermarket manager to George Clooney grinning over a cup of coffee. And the bigger the smile — the bigger the impact on the brain and one’s joy factor (source).

Truth is: we don’t laugh because we’re happy – rather we’re happy because we laugh

Try this experiment force yourself the next time you’re PO’d or stressed or down-on-yourself to JUST LIFT THE CORNERS OF YOUR MOUTH. Ahhh . . . you’re going to feel better — guaranteed because scientists discovered that:

Physically manipulating the muscles that control our smiles and frowns produces
changes in brain chemistry corresponding to the respective emotion.

If your smiling muscles are in gear — then your mood is positive. If your frowning muscles are in gear — then your mood is gloomy.

But of course when the going gets tough, the last thing you feel capable of is even faking a smile. Why not get prepared in advance? Download the  free Laugh2Healthy phone app so it’s there when you need it. Select from a playlist of supportive messages and fun rants to keep you grinning.  If you can keep that smile up,  you WILL change your world. Science guarantees it – check out  the Happy Principles Health Spa for more insight on the power of the smile.

Brain Brief

Everything we do here at Laugh2Healthy is aimed at supporting your healthy lifestyle change.

So bear with us in case we sound a little preachy from time-to-time.  We don’t want to sound preachy. . .

Still . . . by scanning  the research snapshots below with an eye toward figuring out  how to apply the knowledge to yourself,  we think you’ll benefit greatly.

On the fence about getting Botox for that frown line?

Remember we spoke about how frowning activates a gloomy mood? Here’s some reverse-engineered proof.

A team of Swedish and German researchers investigating the connections between facial muscles and mood recruited 30 men and women sharing the following attributes:

  • Suffered from long-standing low mood – they averaged 16 years dealing with recurrent  depression episodes and were in the middle of one lasting about 30 months.
  • Were unconcerned about facial appearance (they wouldn’t have picked Botox if given a choice).
  • Had not benefited from standard anti-depressant medications.

The researchers injected the frown lines of half the participants with Botox and the other half with placebo salt water (the control group). In other words, they froze the frown lines of the intervention group. They couldn’t frown no matter how crummy they felt.

The results were remarkable!  Six weeks after a single treatment, the Botox group reduced their scores on a  standard depression rating scale an average of  47.1 percent. The placebo treated group experienced a comparatively meager 9.2% reduction. (source)

Building on the success of this study, a team from the Georgetown Medical School in Washington, DC decided to test the Botox treatment on patients with MAJOR depressive disorder.  Here’s a list of the attributes shared by the 74 participants (men and women):

  • Suffered from major depressive order.
  • Were taking and receiving benefit from standard anti-depressant medications.
  • Were free of illicit drug abuse.

Participants were randomized to be injected with either Botox Cosmetic or placebo in their frown muscles. At six weeks, 52% of the Botox group and 15% of the placebo group reduced their depression rating scale by at least 50 percent! That really is amazing given these patients were already benefiting from taking anti-depressant medications. No doubt the 50% boost in improved mood changed their lives. (source)

All because they couldn’t frown! I’m still flabbergast and scanning Groupon for deals on Botox injections. 😉 

It’s Science . . . we just can’t help ourselves from smiling back.

Swedish researchers ran an experiment demonstrating that we don’t have a choice in the matter of responding happily to happy stimuli.

They attached EMG electrodes to the all important smile and frown muscles in the faces of study participants to measure activity while they looked at pictures of happy and angry faces.  Participants were instructed to FROWN at the happy faces and SMILE at the angry facesNo matter how hard they tried – they couldn’t oblige.  They just HAD to smile at the happy faces.

So the researchers upped the stakes by running the experiment again telling the subjects to FROWN at the angry faces but NOT TO REACT AT ALL to the happy stimuli. Once again, the participants couldn’t help themselves and just had to smile — and got happy! (source).

Laughter makes carpal tunnel surgery recovery go faster too!

The SOUND of laughter makes you happy quicker

It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed though sounds.  Not only that, we pay more attention to information delivered with non-verbal cues whether they be growls of anger, cries of sadness or the chortles of happy laughter.

Researchers at McGill University in Canada were interested in finding out whether the brain responds differently when emotions are expressed through sounds or though language. To find out, they enrolled 24 participants who listened to  a random mix of vocalizations and nonsense speech (e.g. The dirms are in the cindabal) spoken angrily, sadly and happily. They asked participants to identify which emotions the speakers were trying to convey and used an EEG to record how quickly and in what ways the brain responded.

Participants detected happy sounds faster than angry or sad vocalizations. INTERESTINGLY they found that both angry sounds and speech produced ongoing brain activity that lasted longer than the other emotions. The explanation for our propensity to linger over destructive information lies in our inherent “negativity bias” described below. Read on to find out more, and most importantlyhow to turn the negativity bias on its head! (s0urce)

Putting a smile on changes your brain!

The cold truth of the matter is that humans are hardwired to be gloomy.  Your amygdala is the area of the brain that acts as an alarm bell to alert you of dangers. It’s a bad news resource hog using about  two-thirds of its neurons to look for trouble. Nature hardwired humans this way to protect us. Specifically, our prehistoric mothers were  much better off remembering bad experiences rather than  good ones. The wary hominid who made a mental note that predators abound at dusk  lived to pass on her genes whereas the one taking a walk to admire the sunset . . . well (source).

It’s called “negativity bias” and accounts for why people tend to most vividly remember unhappy rather than happy experiences. AND why we linger over angry sounds and words.  But it can be overcome! It turns out even a FAKE smile can fire-up happy neurons (sources).

The power of a fake smile to lighten moods is a well-studied phenomenon named the “facial feedback hypothesis.” Most experiments studying it use some version of having participants holds pencils or pens in their mouths to mimic smiles. Invariably, the results demonstrate that the bigger the forced faked smile — the more happy the study participant felt (source).

To find out if fake smiles change brain chemistry,  researchers recruited volunteers to hold a pen in their mouths using either their teeth or lips while undergoing an MRI. When a person holds a pen with their teeth, it activates the smile muscles. When held by the lips, the smile muscles are deactivated.

Scan results showed that the areas of the brain associated with positive emotions indeed fires-up in people holding the pen with their teeth. Interestingly, these are the same areas of the brain where mirror neurons reside. (note to self: sanitize a pen, put it in a baggy, place it in my purse and remember to bite hard!)

The happy in your head

Some of the best news coming from the brain science community is that by smiling often enough, the physiological effects can change the shape of an unhappy brain to a happy one. The science is called neuroplasticity and is based on Hebb’s Law: Neurons that fire together wire together.

In other words, what you pay attention to grows. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School decided to test the concept using meditation. She took brain scans of study participants and then put them on meditation schedule. They were instructed to mediate 40 minutes a day for eight weeks. They averaged 27 minutes a day by the study’s end. The brain scans taken afterward showed that areas associated with regulating emotions, learning  and self-relevance enlarged! Importantly, the size of the amygdala DECREASED.  That’s the area of the brain discussed above that’s responsible for our negativity bias. (source)

There’s even a happiness ratio: by receiving three times more positive reinforcement than negative – you can train your brain to flourish rather than languish in glumness. Professor Barbara Fredrickson discusses it in her book Positivity and the practical application is for every time you’re down on yourself, listen to three upbeat messages on the Laugh2Healthy app. It works — it’s science. (source)

. . .

If you’re a gloomy-Gus, the science-based Laugh2Healthy app will work even better

A team of European researchers from Switzerland, Italy and Belgium banded together to test the effects of  watching a funny film with a VIRTUAL companion on how hard a person laughs.  It’s not really clear why they decided to run the experiment, but it’s good news for  gloomy-Gusses seeking a healthier lifestyle.

The team gave a group of 90 volunteers a questionnaire to determine their “trait cheerfulness,” in other words — on a scale of one to 10 did participants score as naturally cheerful or naturally gloomy? After assessing trait cheerfulness, the participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions to watch funny films accompanied by a laughing avatar — yes, I said a laughing avatar.

  1. The Control (participants watched the films without the avatar)
  2. Fixed Verbal Amusement (the avatar said things like “oh that’s funny” at pre-defined points)
  3. Fixed Laughter (the avatar laughed at pre-defined points)
  4. Responsive Laughter (the avatar laughed when the participant did as well as at pre-defined points)

The Results . . .

The avatar had no effect on the enjoyment of the high trait cheerful individuals — they just had a good time across the board. The researchers were a little bummed that the responsive avatar (that laughed when the participant laughed) didn’t make any of the participants happier BUT the low trait cheerful people got a big kick out of the laughing, talking virtual companion! Gloomy-Gusses definitely profited.

Even dogs get happy in the presence of a smile

This one’s just for fun.

The staff at the Azabu University Department of Animal Science and Biotechnology in Japan volunteered their Labrador Retrievers and Poodles in an experiment to see if the dogs would recognize their owners’ faces from photographs. The owners were photographed wearing a smile and wearing a blank expression. When shown the pictures, the dogs were indifferent to the blank expressions but got  all happy and tail-wagging at the sight of their owners’ smiling faces (source).

Comments, questions? Stories to share? Kinda curious about your feelings on Botox — it sure seems to make good sense to me to freeze frown lines and lose a few years. Please make avid use of the comments section!

Bye for now,



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By | 2019-03-09T01:00:21+00:00 August 31st, 2017|Laughter as Medicine, Lifestyle Science|0 Comments

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