Humans are a naturally smiley species. We appear to begin smiling even while we’re still in the womb.
There are so many emotional and health benefits to smiling – keep reading to learn all about them – but what does that mean for those of us in depression? Do we miss out on those benefits altogether?
The answer: not if we don’t want to!
If you’re not feeling your best today, here’s a trick that I’ve used in the past when I was in depression: practise 5 minutes of “smile therapy.” You can do this either by forcing a smile or by holding a pencil or chopstick lengthwise between your teeth for about 5 minutes.
Smiling (or simply moving the facial muscles that control a smile) can trick your brain into believing you’re happy which can then induce actual feelings of happiness.
How does it work?
Smiling activates the release of certain neuropeptides and neurotransmitters in your brain which lift your mood, lower stress, boost your immune system, and relax your body. Your brain can’t tell the difference between a genuine smile and a fake one: it just recognizes that your “smile muscles” were activated and it responds by releasing those chemicals.
So even when you’re feeling down, the simple act of forcing a smile can cause your brain to release these chemicals that lift your mood and make you feel better.
Moral of the story: Fake it (a smile) ‘til you make it (feel happy).
Better than chocolate?
Smiling – or even just seeing another smiling person – activates the reward center of our brain (the orbitofrontal cortex). Studies show that we can even feel more rewarded by smiles than by chocolate or sex or money! Personally, I have my doubts as to whether I’ll feel as satisfied by a smile next time I’m craving chocolate… but that may have more to do with addiction than a question of reward!
A big takeaway from this is that we can feel rewarded (aka better about ourselves) just by being around other people who are smiling.
So, try going to a park and watching happy families next time you feel depressed – or even just look at a photograph of smiling people if it’s one of those dreadful days when you can’t even get out of bed. Even if you feel like you can’t possibly crack a smile, at least you’ll be surrounded by happy people and excited children, and your brain will reward you anyway.
Smiling and pain relief
Smiling can also help to reduce physical pain. The endorphins that get released when you smile act as a natural pain reliever. Psychologist Sarah Pressman put this to the test by having a group of patients hold a chopstick in their mouths when they received a vaccine. She discovered that the chopstick patients reported feeling up to 40 percent less pain than those who weren’t given a chopstick and forced to “smile.”
Next time I stub my toe, I’ll try smiling instead of cursing!
Wanna play with mind control?
Since we usually smile back at someone who smiles at us because smiling is contagious, try this “mind control” trick next time you come across someone who’s having a rough day:
Flash your pearly whites at them and watch them smile back – now you’ve succeeded in tricking that person’s brain into improving their mood just because they activated their smile muscles!
There’s some positive mind control for you! Who knows, maybe they will pass on a smile in turn…
An added benefit of smiling is that people will actually treat you better: smiling causes people to view you as more attractive, reliable, relaxed, competent, and sincere.
So give a few minutes of continuous smiling a try! And then let me know how you feel afterwards 😀