Years ago, around World War II, the number one song had the line, “When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you.” Now recent research has caught up with that song and suggests that it was right on.
Actually research has shown that just making a smile makes you happier as well as healthier. At the same time, smiles seem to be emotionally contagious, which makes you more attractive to others.
Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman at the University of Kansas showed that just widening your lips into a smile lowers our body temperature and your pulse. That is, if we put a smile on our faces it has a physiological effect on us. Another study by Robert Zajonc in 1989 had people make vowel sounds (the vowel EEE), which made them smile and also other vowels (the vowel UUU), which made them pout. He found that just making these sounds and facial expressions made the subject feel happy or sad.
Another study by Elaine Hatfield and colleagues demonstrated that smiling is contagious and makes you more attractive to others. She refers to a “primitive emotional contagion” that seems to exist, the prototype of which is the smiling response of babies to their mothers or caretakers.
Smiling, according to Seaward, activates the release of neuropeptides that fight stress. These are tiny molecules that allow neurons to communicate. They come into play when we are happy, sad, angry, depressed, excited. Smiling also releases the feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. A study in Neuropsychologia concluded that seeing an attractive smiling face activates your orbitofrontal cortex, the region in your brain that process sensory rewards. In other words, you feel rewarded when you see people smiling, and this attracts you to them.
An experiment in 2011 by researchers at the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland found similar results. Subjects were asked to look at pictures people’s faces with various expression and rate their attractiveness. They found that both men and women were more attracted to images of people who made eye contact and smiled than those who did not. Subjects in the experiment chose less attractive faces with smiles over more attractive faces that were not smiling.
So we’ve known for years all about how smiling attracts people, and now we’ve proven it through experiments. But knowing this is one thing and being able to do it is another.
If somebody is unhappy for any reason—and sometimes the reason can be complex—how can they get themselves to smile? Let’s say you just found out that you lost one million dollars in the stock market, discovered that your spouse is cheating on you, received a call from your mother that she has a form of incurable cancer and received a text message saying you were going to be shot at midnight. How is it possible at such a moment to say the vowel, “EEE,” and make a smile? It’s probably not possible. There are moments when it’s impossible, even abnormal, to smile. But during most ordinary days a smile is not impossible.
This is a method that is part psychoanalysis and part cognitive/behavioral. It entails developing a “rational ego.” This is the ego that is grounded in reality (not overly harsh and not overly permissive). When you are brooding, worrying or fuming, the rational ego needs to step in and say, “This is not productive. This is unhealthy. You know that, so just stop. Just stop for a minute and smile. Smile even if it seems to kill you to smile. Smile anyway and keep smiling. You know you’ll start to feel better if you do, and others will feel better about you.”
If you think about it, you can do anything you need to do about any problem you may run into with a smile on your face. In fact you can do it better. Your rational ego knows this and it can help you understand it. But you need to strengthen your rational ego through practice. You need to build up the “muscles” of your rational ego. The stronger your rational ego becomes, the more it can direct your behavior in a productive way. Smiling is productive behavior. Smiling is attractive behavior. The more you practice smiling, the easier it becomes.
Maybe the whole world won’t smile with you, but those in your neighborhood will.