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Smiling can trick your brain into happiness — and boost your health


A smile spurs a powerful chemical reaction in the brain that can make you feel happier.

Even forcing a fake smile can legitimately reduce stress and lower your heart rate

By Nicole Spector

Ever had someone tell you to cheer up and smile?

It’s probably not the most welcomed advice, especially when you’re feeling sick, tired or just plain down in the dumps.

But there’s actually good reason to turn that frown upside down, corny as it sounds.

Science has shown that the mere act of smiling can lift your mood, lower stress, boost your immune system and possibly even prolong your life.

It’s a pretty backwards idea, isn’t it?

Happiness is what makes us smile; how can the reverse also be true?

The fact is, as Dr. Isha Guptaa neurologist from IGEA Brain and Spine explains, a smile spurs a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing certain hormones including dopamine and serotonin.

“Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness

Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress.

Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression,” says Dr. Gupta.

“Low levels of dopamine are also associated with depression.”

Fake It Till You Make It

In other words, smiling can trick your brain into believing you’re happy which can then spur actual feelings of happiness.

But it doesn’t end there.

Dr. Murray Grossan, an ENT-otolaryngologist in Los Angeles points to the science of psychoneuroimmunology

(the study of how the brain is connected to the immune system),

asserting that it has been shown “over and over again” that depression weakens your immune system,

While happiness on the other hand has been shown to boost our body’s resistance.

What’s crazy is that just the physical act of smiling can make a difference in building your immunity,” says Dr. Grossan.“

“When you smile, the brain sees the muscle [activity] and assumes that humor is happening.”

In a sense, the brain is a sucker for a grin.

It doesn’t bother to sort out whether you’re smiling because you’re genuinely joyous, or because you’re just pretending.

“Even forcing a fake smile can legitimately reduce stress and lower your heart rate,” adds Dr. Sivan Finkel, a cosmetic dentist at NYC’s The Dental Parlour.

“A study performed by a group at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown.”

And there are plenty more studies out there to make you smile (or at least, serve as reference for why you should).

Researchers at the University of Kansas published findings that smiling helps reduce the body’s response to stress and lower heart rate in tense situations;

another study linked smiling to lower blood pressure, while yet another suggests that smiling leads to longevity.

Smiling Helps On A Day-To-Day Basis

Studies aside, there are plenty of living, breathing, smiling humans who can testify to the fact that looking the part of happy helps them get through the day.

“Smiling absolutely changes the way I think and feel,” says Jaime Pfeffer, a success coach and meditation instructor based in Florida.

“My husband and I purposely spend 60 seconds every morning smiling to supercharge our mood.

It's part of our morning routine.

If something goes awry during the day, I usually use smiling to quickly shift my mood.

It only take 10 to 15 seconds for it to make a difference for me now.

It helps me to feel less stressed, transform my mood quickly and put things in a different perspective.”

Pfeffer adds that she recommends smiling to all her clients, particularly when they’re dealing with long days or tedious work.

“One of my clients last week told me smiling for 30 seconds at a time a few times per day helps him stay upbeat when doing sales calls.

He said the task can get old after a while, but the smiling helps him stay more energized and avoid burnout.”

Why Laughing at Yourself Can Boost Your Health

Travel writer Clemens Sehi uses a smile not just to feel better, but also as a way of setting an amicable tone with strangers abroad.

“When traveling there is one thing that one realizes quite fast: a smile can change everything.

It can open doors and the hearts of other people whose culture you do not even know. A smile is the most international language that everyone knows.”

A smile is also something that is easy to pass on. Much like yawning, smiling is contagious.

“This is because we have mirror neurons that fire when we see action,” says Dr. Eva Ritzo,

a psychiatrist and the co-author of "The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful."

As its name suggests, mirror neurons enable us to copy or reflect the behavior we observe in others and have been linked to the capacity for empathy.

On a less mechanical level, there’s also the idea that when we see a smile, we want to reciprocate because we feel endeared.

“Smiling is contagious not just because of how a smile looks from the outside, but also because of the intention and the feeling that is put behind a smile,”

says Jasmine Wang, communications manager at Smile Train, a charity providing corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates.

“When someone smiles at you, you feel the good vibes from them, which makes you want to pass a smile on the next person, and so on and so forth.

We should make a conscious effort not to take smiles from our loved ones for granted,

and to keep in mind that across the globe a smile can mean so much more than a simple facial movement.”

How dogs teach us to stop worrying and just be happy

A smile’s contagion is so potent, that we may even be able to catch one from ourselves.

Dr. Ritzo recommends smiling at yourself in the mirror, an act she says not only triggers our mirror neurons,

but can also help us calm down and re-center if we’re feeling low or anxious.

Since researching this piece I’ve been conducting my own little smile experiments.

I tried smiling when I tensed up in traffic yesterday, and again during a rigorous workout and then today when I woke up with a headache.

I found that it feels completely incongruous to smile when I’m tense or tired,

and there’s a strange sense of departing a comfort zone.

But I have to admit, instantly I was calmer, less upset and, maybe just ever so slightly for a second, smiling made me feel happy.

Why Laughing at Yourself Can Boost Your Health

The ability to laugh at your mistakes (and yourself) boosts your physical and psychological health.

By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

It’s happened to everyone: you walk down the street, trip, stumble and fall.

Assuming you aren’t seriously injured, you might peer around to see who bore witness to your foible and either

a) be completely embarrassed and horrified that you took a tumble in public or

b) have a good laugh at yourself, dust yourself off and resume whatever it was you were doing.

The world seems to be divided between two types of people

— those who find it easy to laugh at themselves, and those who take themselves a little too seriously.

Believe it or not, the science of good health tilts in favor of those who crack up when they fall.

As it turns out, the ability to laugh at yourself is not only a healthy attitude — it’s a healthy attribute.

Not Taking Ourselves Too Seriously Benefits Our Mental Health

A 2011 study referenced in Time examined a group of people's reactions to funhouse mirror images of themselves,

and the findings revealed those who laughed most frequently at images of themselves showed "fewer signs of fake smiles or negative emotion."

and the findings revealed those who laughed most frequently at images of themselves showed "fewer signs of fake smiles or negative emotion."

says the ability or proclivity not to take yourself too seriously also can mean you’re prepared to “acknowledge that you are not the center of the universe.”

“Adaptive humor,” such as cheering people up or seeing the humor in negative events, is connected to well-being and psychological health.

Aside from authenticity and a healthy awareness of others,

Dr. Beermann says those who don’t take themselves too seriously can step back and look at themselves, or mistakes they have made, from an outside perspective.

She’s also careful to acknowledge the difference between laughing at yourself and putting yourself down,

or laughter at another’s expense, which isn’t so healthy.

“Adaptive humor,” such as cheering people up or looking for the funny side in rather negative events, is connected to well-being and psychological health in a myriad of ways.

4 Other Ways Laughing At Yourself Makes You Healthier

Dr. Beermann says her study showed that people who can laugh at themselves tend to be more prone to “feeling good and worrying less.”

People who worry less are less prone to chronic stress.

Chronic stress cranks up the natural fight-or-flight hormonal system in our bodies,

which has long been linked to many emotional and physical health issues, including headaches, heart disease, digestive issues, anxiety and depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.

1. It’s good for your heart — literally

A 2009 study conducted by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore revealed that laughing,

along with an “active sense of humor,” can protect against a heart attack and prevent heart disease.

According to the study, people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease

— a little more evidence that lightening up can lengthen your life span.

2. It means you can can handle life better

Dr. Beermann says happier people are also more resilient, meaning they can better handle life when things don’t go their way.

“According to (Swiss humor expert from the University of Zurich) Dr. Willibald Ruch, a cheerful person seems to be more resilient against negative events,

and is more able to face adversities in life with a smile,” she says.

What’s more, a study from the Harvard University Center of the Developing Child says though resilience is borne of both nature and nurture,

the stress experienced by less resilient people produces chemicals in the body that cause inflammation.

Chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cancer, dementia and depression.

“Given the centrality of inflammation to multiple diseases, the fact that early life adversity is associated with elevated inflammatory responses

suggests that toxic stress increases the probability of lifelong health impairments,”

the study says. Though the study was targeted at young children, toxic stress causes inflammation in adults, too.

Science says the more you laugh, the better you remember.

3. You can manage pain better

We’ve established that laughing at yourself indicates resilience.

And a recent study published in the Journal of Pain demonstrated that higher resilience is associated with a higher pain threshold in otherwise healthy adults.

Another article in American attributes the endorphins released during laughter to pain relief.

4. It boosts your short-term memory

Science says the more you laugh, the better you remember.

Loma Linda University researchers conducted a study examining the stress levels and short term memory of 20 healthy adults in their 60s and 70s.

They asked one group to sit in silence without means of communication, and let the other group watch funny videos.

Wouldn’t you know it, the “humor group” had “much higher improvement” in the ability to remember things,

43.6 percent, compared with 20.3 percent in the other group.

Additionally, the humor group had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol floating around their systems,

while the other group only showed a slight drop in their stress levels.

So the next time you take a tumble or trip on the sidewalk, have a laugh. You’ll be all the healthier for it!

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