Small Change, Big Gain: The Benefits of Smiling

Mark Sagor


Harvey Ball, commercial artist from Worcester,Massachusetts, designed the smiley face in 1983

Harvey Ball, commercial artist from Worcester,
Massachusetts, designed the smiley face in 1963

Even the “show me the numbers” folks over at the Wall Street Journal are alerting their readers to the fascinating body of research demonstrating the positive impact of smiling. It appears that remembering to smile more could pay off in a variety of ways including better heart health and lower stress levels.

The idea that facial expressions don’t just reveal emotions but actually induce them, goes all the way back to Charles Darwin who observed in 1872 that “the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” Contemporary researcher Sarah Pressman at the University of California, Irvine explains it this way: “We smile because we feel not threatened. Over time that message evolved so the muscle involved in a smile sends a message to the brain signaling safety.” When we “feel” safe our stress level goes down.

One of the most persuasive cases for the benefits of smiling is made by Ron Gutman in his entertaining TED talk. Some of his more intriguing points include:

  • When you smile you not only appear to be more likable and courteous, you appear to be more competent.
  • Studies looking at yearbook photos and early baseball cards show an association between smiling and longer lives and marriages.
  • 1/3 of us smile more than 20 times a day
  • 14% of us smile less than 5 times a day
  • Some children smile as much as 400 times a day (no wonder they are more fun to be around)
  • Smiling reduces the release of stress hormones like cortisol and increases release of pleasure hormones like dopamine.

So can smiling really make you happier? Why not conduct your own experiment and find out. The next time you are stuck in traffic or engaged in a stressful task at work put a smile on your face and hold it there for a minute. Observe your reaction. I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about my personal experience with using a fake smile to get through a difficult domestic episode. It worked.

Smiling won’t make any of your real world problems disappear. It won’t pay your bills or fix your leaky roof but it may help you feel better, live longer and have more energy to tackle those problems. Start giving those smile muscles a good workout and see what happens. It would be a shame to miss out on the benefits of such a powerful and renewable resource.