One Smile Can Go a Long Way

Smiling, even when you aren’t feeling it, will change your life in ways worth beaming for.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Vivian Teo

As you sit hunched over at your desk, drowning in a sea of deadlines, perhaps the last thing you feel like doing is smiling. There is just so much on your mind, from the three exams scheduled for the next day to that one irritating project you put off until the night before it was due (despite your teacher’s relentless urgings to avoid doing so). You are miserable, anxious, and overwhelmed, and showing off those pearly whites does not exactly capture the mood. Instead, you do the opposite. You tense up your shoulders, furrow your brows, and manifest the gloomy frown that resides upon your lips more often than not.

Wrong choice, though. Defeatist facial expressions, such as squinting or frowning, are proven to trigger aggressiveness and a more pessimistic outlook on the task at hand. Each time we glower at the unsuspecting computer screen, we are only pushing ourselves deeper into a pit of perpetual gloom. However, just as a grimace induces negative feelings, a simple smile can actually make you happier.

When you smile, your neurons, which are specialized cells that transmit electrical impulses and chemical signals to convey information between different areas of the brain and nervous system, throw a “feel-good party” in your brain. Neurons release happiness-inducing neurotransmitters—chemical messengers such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Serotonin is a critical hormone that stabilizes our mood and stimulates feelings of well-being and bliss. In fact, this neurotransmitter is found in selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant. These drugs work to decrease the reabsorption of serotonin by neighboring nerve cells, thus increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. Moreover, endorphins are natural painkillers that relieve stress and anxiety, and, like dopamine, induce euphoria and pleasurable sensations.

All three of these chemicals occur naturally in the body, so when you are feeling down, a simple smile can replicate several of the effects of antidepressants and other synthetic concoctions, like benzodiazepines, used to treat depression and anxiety. Smiling can be the mood-booster you are seeking, achieving what prescription drugs can without their potential side effects.

Consistently high levels of stress harm our physical and mental health. The physiological reaction known as the fight-or-flight response is a reaction to external stress that thrusts our body into survival mode. However, we simply can’t be in this state of emergency all the time, as our body depletes its resources at an increasingly faster rate, and we soon fatigue. Recent studies suggest that perhaps smiling is the key to alleviating some of the damage triggered by this reaction. An investigation performed by the University of Kansas indicated that smiling can reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response. Compared to participants who displayed neutral facial expressions, those who smiled had lower heart rate levels after recovering from performing stressful multitasking activities. This is because smiling triggers the release of neuropeptides, small proteins produced by neurons that boost neural activity and communications. As indicated by the study, neuropeptides have the potential to relieve anxiety during stressful situations. In another study conducted by the College of Family Physicians of Canada, researchers concluded that smiling and laughing increase heart rate and oxygen consumption, both of which are followed by a phase of decreased heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and muscle relaxation. Attaining and maintaining this comfortable state also decreases the chances of developing heart disease later in life.

When we are stressed, our cells get stressed too, which can have a detrimental effect on our immune system. This is because permanent stress reduces the number of immunocompetent cells, which recognize and respond to foreign invaders, in the bloodstream, hindering our ability to effectively combat disease. During extended periods of tension, it takes longer for our cells to acquire immunity as well, making us more vulnerable to attack from pathogens. Smiling can come to the rescue here, as dopamine, our trusty neurotransmitter, can activate certain parts of our immune system when released. As dopamine levels rise, the number of antibodies and natural killer cells also increases. Hence, a positive mindset can be linked to our body’s defense system and our overall well-being.

Health benefits aside, smiling uplifts both you and those around you. A casual grin is contagious, spreading happiness and positivity to every person it reaches. During challenging times, it may seem pointless, foolish even, to crack a smile—the very gesture that is supposed to convey joy. However, smiling is the remedy to your despondency; the light to your darkness. Smiling will not only elevate your mood but also reinforce the positive thinking necessary to inspire productivity and a brighter outlook on life. So, when you are feeling sad, happy, or nothing at all, show the world that grin. You will be surprised by how far a simple smile can go.