The Science Behind Your Smile

The English writer William Hazlitt once said, “A gentle word, a kind look, a good-natured smile can work wonders and accomplish miracles.” That goes double for the smile seen around the world: the smiley face created by Harvey Ball in 1963.

This brightly colored grin helped communicate goodwill and cheer in a single glance, blowing past language, cultural, and religious boundaries. The smiley face is still around today, appearing on everything from T-shirts to emojis. But the original smiley face still packs a punch, and for a good reason: the affect smiling has on a living, breathing, human being. In fact, the power of smiling is immense, affecting both physiology and behavior. For example:

  • In 2008, a study conducted at Texas Children’s Hospital used MRI technology to monitor the brains of new mothers while they viewed pictures of their babies with varying facial expressions. Areas of the brain associated with reward and the neurotransmitter dopamine (the same areas affected by drug use) lit up when the mothers were shown pictures of their babies smiling. Areas related to emotion, cognition, and behavior responded, as well.
  • Another study, in 2003, focused specifically on behavior. The purpose of the study was to determine whether being smiled at would influence the likelihood that a passerby would demonstrate kindness by helping a stranger pick up something he dropped. The results were fascinating: Passersby who were smiled at were more likely (20 percent vs. almost 30 percent) to help a stranger who subsequently dropped something.
  • As far back as 1890, researchers suspected that the cause-and-effect relationship between happiness and smiling worked both ways. Since then, numerous studies have confirmed that conclusion: Not only is smiling more likely when we feel happy, but the act of smiling can actually increase our happiness.
  • Smiling has also been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure, boost the immune system, and enhance the impression you have on others.
  • Smiling can increase not only our own happiness, but also the happiness of those around us. When we smile at someone, that person automatically smiles back, and subsequently, that returned smile increases that person’s own feelings of happiness and well-being.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Smiling is an easy, free, and enormously effective way to turn someone’s — and your own — day around, and the ripple effect can spread farther than you’ll ever know.

Has your life ever been affected by a smile? Tweet your photos and stories to @humankindness, or post them on Dignity Health’s Facebook page.

Image source: Bigstock