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Sincere smiles lead to good health

Submitted by on September 2, 2013 – 12:11 pm

Is smiling healthy for you?

By Jill Hayhurst

chimp smileRecently it feels like there has been a flurry of research exploring the links between emotions and health, resulting in an outbreak of sometimes contradictory and confusing advice. This is in part because the research is fairly new, and in part because the findings are not that straightforward. Generally the consensus is that positive emotions lead to better health and negative emotions can be bad for people’s health. But why are emotions linked health at all? One theory is that positive emotions reduce the impacts of adversity or stress, and one clever way of testing this theory is by examining people’s smiles.

Smiles have been studied since the 19th century. Although there is an estimated upward of 50 types of smiles, most researchers tend to focus on just two: the genuine, Duchenne smile, and the standard, non-enjoyment smile. Most people can easily identify the difference between the two smiles, even if it’s just on an unconscious level. Physiologically though, genuine, Duchenne smiles reach the eyes, while standard smiles remain only at the mouth.

On the surface, it looks like smiling is good for you. There’s evidence that people who spontaneously smiled when they were stressed recovered faster – i.e.  their cardiovascular activation returned to baseline levels faster, compared to those who didn’t smile. A similar study showed that people who watched funny films after being stressed also recovered faster.

And there’s more good news for smiling! People who hold pencils in their mouths in a way that mimics smiling find cartoons funnier than their non-smiling (but still pencil chewing) counterparts. And people who hold chopsticks in their mouths in a way that mimics smiling have lower heart rates following stressful tasks, whether they were aware that they were smiling or not.

The problem with this research is that smiling may be a proxy for other, deeper psychological processes. So the recommendation is not for everyone just start smiling more in order to experience better health. This is where the key difference between the genuine and standard smile comes in. There is new evidence that people who are prone to heart problems are more likely to have ‘transient myocardial ischemia events’ when they smile insincerely. In one study, researchers assessed the nature of the participants’ smiles by meticulously coding their moving facial muscles while they responded to questions. These brief, abnormal heart events are often painless, but over time can lead to serious, or even fatal outcomes. The heart activity that occurs when people are stressed is often bad for health, especially if the stress is prolonged. These pivotal findings show that insincere smiles were specifically linked to stress responses in people’s hearts.

And so, as with most research, it’s not as simple as it first appears. But I don’t think that undermines the importance of the findings. Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues propose that one of the reasons we need positive emotions is because they undo the negative effects of negative emotions. But only if people are genuinely feeling it. The gist is not to fake it til you make it, but instead do things that you really love and that really makes you smile. And if you are feeling stressed out, you can easily remedy it: a) acquaint yourself to some chopsticks; b) acquaint yourself with a funny film; or c) acquaint yourself to someone who makes you smile.

For more information on the research reported here check out Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s website: www.positivityratio.com

Jill Hayhurst is a PhD student at the University of Otago who is exploring the links between belonging, wellbeing, generosity, community, social justice and participation. Her research goal at the moment is to contribute to our understanding of what makes people engaged citizens, in the hopes that we can create resilient and thriving individuals and communities. She loves tramping, crafting, surfing tiny waves, and long walks with her dog and brand new husband around Port Chalmers.

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