Smiling Is Powerful Medicine: Research on How Smiling Can Improve Your Health, and Relationships

woman smiling

No matter where you find yourself on this planet or what language you speak, you’ll know a smile when you see one. While cross-cultural studies reveal slightly different meanings ascribed to smiling, they appear throughout the lifespan of all human (and some non-human) beings. Scientists have identified three different kinds of authentic smiles as well as identified the traits of a fake one

What can all the research on smiling do for you? More than you might think. Psychological researchers have found many benefits to the act of smiling that include improved relationships, improved mental health, and even increased lifespan! Keep reading to learn more about some recent findings on smiling than can take your life from good to great with a simple curve of the mouth. 

Smiling Is Good for Your Health

You likely tend to think of a smile as a result of positive emotions or stimuli, but it turns out that your smile can actually affect your stress levels and productivity, too. When scientists asked participants to engage in a challenging task, they found that the smiling folk had lower stress levels and heart rates than the non-smiling group. Some people were asked to hold chopsticks horizontally in their mouths to simulate the shape of a smile, and even those people saw the positive effects of the smile on their faces.

Smiling also releases endorphins, which improves your mood, helps you to relax, and lowers your blood pressure. And because smiling is contagious, the benefits of your smile extend beyond your own body to the people you engage with.

Smiling May Help You Live Longer

So if smiling can contribute to less overall stress, and lower stress levels prolong lifespan, then smiling prolongs lifespan, right? Right! A compelling study at Wayne State University studied photos to classify the smiles of 230 baseball players. They found that the players with partial smiles lived on average two years longer than players who didn’t smile at all; those who had the biggest smiles lived roughly seven years longer than then non-smiling ones.

While it might be frightening to think about your school-age yearbook photos having any indication of the span of your life, it may be time to turn that frown upside down to make up for lost time.

Smiling Improves Your Relationships

Looking for a date or a mate? People find you more attractive (and thinner) when you smile. Studies show that different areas of the brain light up when looking at pictures of people who are smiling versus not smiling. People who are smiling to any degree are generally labeled more attractive (and women are considered more trustworthy) than those with neutral expressions. The next time you are in a social situation and want someone to talk to you try smiling and see what happens.

Smiling Improves Effectiveness in the Workplace

The benefits of smiling extend beyond interpersonal relationships to the work environment. Smiling at your coworkers creates moments of connection that lead to greater productivity and teamwork. People in the service industry prove to have a more positive effect on customers when they smile. And people in leadership positions tend to favor their employees who smile more regularly. However, be careful, as some studies have shown that smiling too much can prevent you from being hired, as it can make your potential employer find you to be less serious or competent. One article suggests that smiling only at the beginning and end of an interview is enough to show that you are friendly, but not so friendly that you would be taken advantage of or manipulated.  

Smiling Improves Your Mood

Yes, you smile when you’re in a good mood, but smiling can also put you in a good mood. When participants were injected with botulinum toxin (a neuromuscular blocker) that would paralyze the frowning muscles in their faces, their moods improved and their depressive symptoms decreased. This finding suggests that the facial expressions involved in a true smile are part of a feedback loop that affects your emotions. People who frown during unpleasant procedures report more pain than those who make neutral or relaxed faces, inferring that the feedback loop works both ways.

What Constitutes a Real Smile?

The botulinum toxin studies also point to the importance of the eyes and forehead when smiling authentically. The Duchenne (or genuine) smile involves not just the muscles around the mouth, but also the ones that cause the cheeks to raise and the eyes to crescent. People who smile just with their mouths (think of the “say cheese” smile when taking a photo) don’t experience the same rewards as those who are smiling with their entire face; they do experience some of the benefits, just to a lesser degree.

People who tend more easily toward Duchenne smiles self-report better life satisfaction and marriages, however, so it may be worth learning how to smile with more of your face in the long run.

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Practice Makes Perfect

Practice makes perfect—especially for men. Researcher Marianne LaFrance says that women smile more than men (mostly because they’re better at social intelligence and judging what is going on with other people). But far and away, children win the smiling contest. One article reports that children smile, on average, 400 times a day, whereas the happiest adults only smile 40-50 times a day.

If that doesn’t give you a kick in the pants, consider it this way: speaker and entrepreneur Ron Gutman says in his popular Ted Talk on the hidden power of smiling, that smiling is like a superpower. But unlike the power to fly or to become invisible, this one can be learned, practiced diligently, and improved upon.

So watch a funny movie, play more with your kids, and practice calling to mind someone who really lights you up when you’re posing for a picture. The smile on your face could literally make you happier, healthier, more effective, more attractive, and live a longer life. Doesn’t the thought of that make you smile?

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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About the Author

Karson McGinley

Yoga Teacher and Life Coach
Karson McGinley is the owner of Happy-U Yoga in San Diego, California. A teacher for over a decade, Karson works to bridge the gap between the ancient wisdom of yoga and the modern science of human flourishing through her classes, bi-weekly article contributions to The Chopra Center, and leading the Happy-U Yoga & Positive Psychology Teacher Training program. Karson teaches Hatha, Vinyasa, and Anusara Elements™ classes, inspired by the teachings of Classical and Tantric yogic philosophy, positive psychology, and metaphysical texts like A Course in Miracles . By sharing spiritual themes, scientific research, and anecdotal...Read more