The Science Behind Smiling

The Science Behind Smiling

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The Science Behind Smiling

Charles Darwin, best known for his theory of evolution which he presented in one of the most important books of all time, On the Origin of Species, explained how populations adapt to their environments over time. In doing so, he laid down the foundation for evolutionary biology as we know it. On The Origin of Species is Darwin’s most famous work, but he also wrote a much lesser known book titled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, where he claimed that all humans show emotion through similar behaviors. This view is one that psychologists today generally agree with, affirming that certain expressions of emotion are common to all of us, regardless of race, culture, or age. One of these universal facial expressions is a smile.

Smiling and Happiness

The natural response to happiness is smiling. And according to science, the reverse is also true: smiling can actually create happiness.

Recently psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman conducted experiments to find the link between stress and smiling. They found that when people smiled while completing mundane tasks, they had lower heart rates and stress levels than those who wore a neutral expression throughout their tasks. This effect was especially pronounced for participants who produced a big ear-to-ear smile, known as a Duchenne smile. The experiment led the researchers to conclude that when faced with stressful situations, it may be a good idea to put a smile on your face, if only for a moment, as this lowers stress. Smiling also tricks our brains into believing we are happy, and one way it does this is by making us think of happier memories, which boost our moods.

Smiling and Stress

Even though the exact relationship behind facial expression and mental state is largely unknown, it has been suggested that smiling reduces levels of the stress-inducing hormone cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol could potentially lead to cardiovascular disease, mental illness, and obesity, so it’s worth every effort to try to decrease our cortisol levels.

Smiling also has a positive impact on the balance of neurotransmitters present in your brain. Neurotransmitters are powerful neurochemicals that are responsible for regulating our physical, mental and cognitive functions such as sleep cycles, pain resistance, weight control and even emotional state. The effect of smiling on neurotransmitters can help stabilize your mood during daily stressful activities ,and help calm your nervous system.

When an imbalance in neurotransmitters occurs, it can trigger a range of complications such as obesity, alcoholism, caffeine or nicotine dependency, depression, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and many other conditions. Therefore, the simple act of smiling can activate neural messaging in your brain that promotes health and happiness.

Smiling and Attraction

Research shows that when you smile, people treat you differently. Smiling instantly makes you appear more reliable, relaxed, sincere, and attractive. The Face Research Laboratory in Scotland conducted a study by asking a group of men and women to view images of people and rate their attractiveness. The study found that people who smiled more were rated as more attractive than those who avoided eye contact and didn’t smile at all.

Perhaps this is why celebrities invest in perfect smiles, often opting for porcelain veneers to give them flawlessly straight, white teeth. According to a cosmetic dentistry practice in Boston, broken and stained teeth can make a person look older, while a brighter smile gives a look of health and youthfulness. Anyone you spot on television will more likely than not have a perfect smile. This gives them a youthful glow while simultaneously making them look more attractive.

Smiling and Endorphins

When the smiling muscles in our face contract, it sends a signal to the brain to stimulate the reward system that further increases our levels of endorphins, or happiness hormones. This triggering of the reward system can have the same effect on our happiness as eating chocolate or receiving a monetary prize. According to science, it really is possible to have a “million dollar smile!”

When it comes to happiness, children clearly have an advantage over adults—they smile 400 times a day on average, as compared to 20 times a day for adults. If you find it hard to smile, try being around people who tend to smile a lot. According to a Swedish study, it is difficult to keep a straight face when constantly faced with people who are smiling at you.

So not only does smiling reward our brain’s feel-good system, it also makes us look more attractive and lowers stress levels. In stressful situations, smiling is a great way to temper extreme levels of stress and to keep your cortisol levels under control. Smiling is an act that many of us may have to practice in order to make a regular habit. However, it’s a habit worth investing in, as smiling, happiness, and health have a scientifically proven link to one other.

You’ve read The Science Behind Smiling, originally posted on Words of the Web | Motivation and Self Improvement. If you’ve enjoyed this, please visit our site for more inspirational articles.


  1. Very nice.
    In spanish, smiling is sonrisa, which sounds like sun rise. The rising in the warmth of a beautiful, genuine smile in someone you are attracted to. It has led me to where I am today. It is so powerful in that way. Because in the smiles I have chased, there are undescribable promises. It makes me dream and so gives me hope. If anything, it will have made me live a wholesome, deeply happy life. And it goes on. I imagine it, am inspired by my own desires to meet one who would tell the things I feel, and eventually, I find it, yet again, better each an ongoing story that evolves towards yet higher reaches. Like dawn, it can be a subtle sign which, immaterial, on an expressive face, chases the shadows away, shyly revealing the magic of smile.

  2. Fascinating article! Especially interesting to me that we mimic other people’s smiles in social situations in order to trigger whatever their muscles are triggering, to evaluate how “real” the smile is.

    Interesting side note for me, too, is the distinction between “mouth only” smiles and “real” smiles that engage the eye muscles. It offers an explanation that helps me to understand some of my own sense of social discomfort that has arisen since I contracted Graves disease. Both the disease and the eight eye surgeries I’ve had as a result have scarred my eye muscles, and they don’t move as easily and smoothly as they used to. I’m often conscious of my expressions in a way that I never was before Graves. Even though people have told me that, since the surgeries, my eyes look quite normal, I’ve continued to feel hyper-conscious of them when I’m interacting with people. This article makes sense of that reaction—my eye muscles are having trouble responding fluidly to effect the smile I’m feeling but having trouble expressing, and my brain knows it. In other words, I’m feeling a disconnect between what my smiling muscles want to do and what they actually are doing. (I’m not sure that this is what’s going on, but it makes more sense than anything else that I’ve been able to come up with.)
    Thanks for a great article!

  3. i smile all the time.. i smile so much if i’m not smiling people think i’m upset or sad understand because 90% of the time i’m smiling. like at work 7hours shift of complete smiling, but i have done it all my life. i look in the mirror sometimes and feel normal, not happy or sad, yet my face says happy. sometimes it makes me wonder if something is wrong with me, oh-well no-one says anything bad. must look normal 😀

  4. Lovely article, thanks! I really liked this bit “imagine yourself going through the day and smiling lots to everyone and everything, that’s often when a happier life starts.” – I have always imagined myself smiling at work, right from when I got my first job behind a bar. I had so many happy customers, and was often complimented on my smile. I never felt I was doing anything special, but the feedback I got suggested that people simply weren’t used to seeing someone looking so happy, and it made them feel good to see it! The very real impact was that I usually got really good tips…. 🙂

    But it has helped me in every job, and every business I have had. Not to mention the effect it has on me personally.

  5. Love this article! Another thing that the article did not touch upon is that smiles are contagious. It is actually hinted at in the part with why we feel happier around children, they smile more, which in turns makes us smile more because smiles make other people smile. So the easiest and most effective way to spread happiness is simply to smile at people!

  6. Being positive and more optimistic, living “in the moment” (stop over-thinking, just doing), not worrying about stuff (not giving a fu*k) and laughing and smiling more. All these factors contributed to an overall happier life I’ve been enjoying for about two years now.

    If you want more happiness and joy in your life than smiling is definitely a good start, since other things mentioned above require not just change in your behavior but also your mindset. Of course to really achieve a long-term genuine smile you need to switch your mindset too, but as this great article suggests, smiling directly affects your brain, thus making the mindset-shift easier.

    Besides making your life happier, smiling will drastically improve your social life too. I’ve probably had more small talks with random strangers and meet more people on various parties/gatherings over last two years, than I did in all the previous years of my life. You will seem more open and approachable, people will be attracted to you and best of all, you will make other people’s lives happier since smiling is so contagious (and thanks to the article we know why that is -mimicking).

    Stay positive and smile widely!

  7. I facilitated/lead a group called “Smile Therapy” for people who were living at a very nice Assisted Living Center. It happened quite by accident … the Activity Director said she wanted me to do a group there, and I said “Arts & Crafts, Meditation ??” She said “No, we have those .. its’ something else you’re going to teach” … and out of my mouth I said “Smile Therapy” — I was joking !! And she said ‘that’s it …. I’m putting it on the calendar !!” I said “No, I don’t even know what I’d be doing …. it’s a JOKE!!” She said, “Ok, call me in the next couple of weeks BEFORE I send the calendar out and let me know what you really want to do.” Several weeks went by, and I forgot to call …. and the calendar came out !! I thought what the heck, I’ll go and see what happens …. !! I showed up and it ended up having MORE people in the group than any other group they had had !!! They were ALL curious to see what SMILE THERAPY was !!! (me, too:) !! I just started sharing … what I knew about smiling and had them close their eyes so they wouldn’t feel funny at first smiling for ‘no reason’ …. Each week I would either get an idea for the group while getting dressed, or driving there in the car , and most often ‘in the moment’ … the energy of the group !! This group continued for 2 1/2 years !!! And every week it had a LOT of people and word spread. The Activity Director said — ‘people are coming out of depression and you are stimulating brain activity’ !!! I was just ‘showing up’ and playing in the moment … and sometimes funny …. lots of SMILING and LAUGHING … SO I KNOW it works !!! I don’t know that I could re-create it … as it was so spontaneous. The corporation that owned the Assisted Living places called me after I had left and wanted to know if I had a ‘lesson plan or curriculum’ that I could send to others to use …. but of course I didn’t … because I just made it up as I went along …. LOL !!! SMILE SMILE SMILE !!!