How smiling can positively influence the way we think

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Smiling has been scientifically proven to be a powerful mood-booster. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Sometimes, turning a frown upside down by smiling can be the simplest and most effective way to stop a gloomy day from getting even worse.

Smiling is a powerful way to boost our moods and wellbeing. New research shows that even a brief smile can significantly change the way we perceive others.

Researchers at the University of Essex found that smiling for just a split second makes others more likely to see happiness in an otherwise expressionless face.

Previous studies have explored the science behind a smile, and how it can benefit both physical and mental health. Even forcing a fake smile can make a difference in how we feel, with a 2022 study showing that people felt happier after posing a smile.

The science behind smiling

It all comes down to what happens within our bodies when we smile. Smiling is something we do often, sometimes without even thinking about it - whether it’s to be polite, or when we see someone or something that we like.

When the corners of our mouths lift, an invisible response takes place in our brain that can help boost our mood. According to Ruth Kudzi, psychologist and neuroscience expert and author of How to Feel Better, the simple act of smiling can trigger the release of ‘happy hormones’.

These hormones, a joyful cocktail of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, are associated with feelings of happiness and wellness.

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Smiling comes naturally to many of us, and is something we often do on a daily basis. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

"When we smile, even if it’s forced, our brain sees that as a signal that things are going well, leading to an improvement in our overall mood - how incredible," she tells Yahoo UK.

"Research shows that the human brain evolved to react much more strongly to negatives than positives - it's part of our primal instinct to keep us safe from risk and danger, but this negative bias can sometimes get in the way and overtake our thinking, happiness and positivity.

"This is why we need to proactively give it a kick up the bum sometimes and this can simply start with a smile - purposefully taking control by smiling can impact; our mood, our mindset, our thoughts and it can even impact the language we use... internally (internal voice) as well as what we speak out," Kudzi continues.

She adds that smiling has been scientifically proven to reduce stress levels, by activating the release of neuropeptides that work to combat stress and lower your heart rate.

So even if you’re having a bad day and nothing’s going your way, making yourself smile can, at least temporarily, make you feel better.

Is smiling contagious?

When we see others smile, it makes us want to smile too – so smiling can be contagious, although no one really knows why.

Kudzi says that humans are social creatures, and when we see others smile, our brain often wants to mimic the expression and experience a similar emotional response, which can also help us build social connections.

Registered psychotherapist Eloise Skinner adds that some studies suggest smiling is recognised by our minds and bodies as a sign of positive interaction – therefore, smiling can be used as a social tool rather than a cause of increased happiness.

“But we can still find some benefit from this recognition - seeing other people with a positive manner or approach can encourage us to adopt the same mood, bringing our levels of positivity up,” she says.

“And on a personal level, we might also find ourselves mirroring the behaviour and attitude of the people we spend time with - so a positive friend can start to bring us into their upbeat outlook.”

How can we smile more often?

It might sound simple, but sometimes, it can be difficult to find a reason to smile. To help you gently incorporate more smiles into your day, Jason Ward, UKCP-accredited psychotherapist and clinic director of DBT London, provides his tips:

Mindfulness and positive affirmations: Start your day with a positive thought or a moment of gratitude. This mindset can make smiles come more naturally.

Gratitude journaling: Write down three things you're thankful for each day. Reflecting on the good can bring a spontaneous smile to your face.

Seek out humour: Watch a funny show, read a light-hearted book, or share jokes with friends. Laughter is a certain way to encourage more smiles.

Social connections: Spend time with people who uplift you. Their positive energy can make smiling an effortless part of your day.

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