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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

We have all heard that smiles are contagious.  Is that really the case?

There have been numerous studies that show that not only does a smile physiologically change your own mood, but it can also alter the mood of those around you.

A smile causes a shift in our brain chemistry that assists us in extending our lifespan by managing stress, reducing pain, lowering our heart rate, reducing blood pressure and acting as a natural anti-depressant.

An article in Psychology Today examines the impact a smile has on our brain.

“Smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress. Neuropeptides are tiny molecules that allow neurons to communicate. They facilitate messaging to the whole body when we are happy, sad, angry, depressed, excited. The feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are all released when a smile flashes across your face as well”

If this isn’t enough reason to flash those pearly whites, consider the impact a smile has on those around you.

A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia illustrates that “attractive faces produced activation of medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a region involved in representing stimulus-reward value.  Responses in this region were further enhanced by a smiling facial expression…”  In layman’s terms, when you view a person smiling, you actually feel rewarded.

This was illustrated through a Swedish study where participants were presented with images that expressed emotions of joy, anger, fear and surprise. Researchers asked subjects to frown when looking at the smiling images.  What they found was that the participants’ initial reaction was to mimic the expression they were presented with. It took conscious effort to accommodate the researcher’s request to frown.  Very simply put, smiles are contagious.

It was renowned psychologist and author Daniel Goleman Ph.D. who identified why this is.

“A previously unknown class of neurons — mirror neurons — acts like a neural Wi-Fi system, monitoring everything the other person is saying and doing.   Mirror neurons appear to let us “simulate” not just other people’s actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. When you see someone smile, for example, your mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, creating a sensation in your own mind of the feeling associated with smiling. You don’t have to think about what the other person intends by smiling. You experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly.”

If you want to positively impact those around you, it isn’t enough to simply crack a smirk. Other studies have also shown that individuals will mimic the type of smile they are presented with.

In our society, we often smile in an effort to be polite whereas genuine smiles happen spontaneously and is an indicator of pleasure.  Observational studies demonstrated that strangers, getting to know one another, would always match the type of smile they received.  Additionally, they responded more readily to a genuine smile versus a polite smile.

“Similarly, participants in a lab-based study learned key-press associations for genuinely smiling faces faster than those for politely smiling faces. Data from electrical sensors on participants’ faces revealed that they engaged smile-related muscles when they expected a genuine smile to appear but showed no such activity when expecting polite smiles.

The different responses suggest that genuine smiles are more valuable social rewards. Previous research shows that genuine smiles promote positive social interactions, so learning to anticipate them is likely to be a critical social skill.”

So what if you don’t feel like smiling?  Fake it until you make it.  Research has shown that the act of smiling alone, can stimulate physiological responses that will ultimately turn that forced grin into a genuine smile.

Howstuffworks.com talks about this phenomenon by sharing the work of Robert Zajonc on the emotional effects of smiling.

“His subjects repeated vowel sounds that forced their faces into various expressions. To mimic some of the characteristics of a smile, they made the long “e” sound, which stretches the corners of the mouth outward. Other vowel sounds were also tested, including the long “u,” which forces the mouth into a pouty expression. Subjects reported feeling good after making the long “e” sound, and feeling bad after the long “u.”

The key to happiness (yours and others) may be as simple as a smile.  Or as Louis Armstrong would sing: “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”

P.S.There is research that suggests that getting Botox injections might actually make you happier since you can no longer frown. Hmmm….

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