The science of smiling in our post-mask moment

The science of smiling in our post-mask moment

Fingers crossed, the days of widespread mask usage are behind us. We can finally meet face-to-face in the most literal sense, with the full spectrum of our facial expressions visible once more. This is important to cultivating relationships; they say a picture is worth a thousand words and we’d argue a facial expression is the same.

But facial expressions aren’t just about how other people feel – it also affects how we feel ourselves. Considering today marks the beginning of National Smile Month, we wanted to use this article to talk about the science of smiles, now we can see them once more.

The ripple effect of smiling

It’s unsurprising that smiling and laughing are good for your mental health. After all, they’re the symptoms of happiness which are, in fact, hormonal. When you smile, your brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. The endorphins act as a mild painkiller and serotonin is an antidepressant. One study even suggests that smiling can reduce our heart rate and help us cope better with stress.

The effects of smiling aren’t limited to one individual. Many of us have observed the ripple effect of smiling or laughing, where a positive atmosphere can fill the room. In scientific terms, this is known as the “facial feedback hypothesis”, which states that facial expressions have the ability to modulate subjective experiences. Fascinatingly, this theory was proven by Swedish scientists in 2011.

Fake it ’til you make it

A recent study conducted at the University of South Australia found you don’t even need to be happy to reap the benefits of a smile. According to their research, when a person’s facial muscles are arranged in a smile, it can trick the brain into feeling good. This was tested by participants’ emotional responses when they were holding a pen in their teeth, mimicking the muscular form of a smile.

According to cognition expert Dr Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, who worked on the study, “when you forcefully practise smiling, it stimulates the amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain – which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.” In conclusion, Dr Marmolejo-Ramos suggested that “a ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach could have more credit than we expect.”

A new meaning for “grin and bear it”

Smiling isn’t only a symptom of happiness; it can also be a cause. These studies show that smiling helps us manage stress and get through day to day life; in fact, there could be more substance to the expression “grin and bear it” than we may think. These benefits don’t just apply to individuals – smiling can make others around you feel more positive too. 

So, now we’re transitioning into more positive times after the pandemic, we can tentatively take off the masks and crack a smile. Reading each other’s facial expressions is crucial to cultivating positive relationships, so it’s high time we embraced being truly face-to-face once more. Although there might still be challenging times to come, it’s scientifically proven what a positive outlook can do.



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