Dear Dr. Garner,
I hope you can resolve this “issue” that has come between my mother and myself.
My mother said she heard about a study on TV which found that people who smile a lot are more likely to be healthy.
Is this really true? If so, isn’t it being somewhat of a phony to smile when you are not truly happy about something? My mother says I should smile more.
Straight-Faced from Sunset Park
As to the issue of smiling and health, the question is this: When we feel good we smile, but does it work the other way around? In other words, can smiling actually make us feel better?
It turns out that there are two types of smiles. The polite or “stewardess smile” (named after Pan Am’s smiling policy) and the genuine smile. Polite smiles involve the use of muscles around the mouth. These are not totally genuine. The genuine smile involves the muscles surrounding the mouth and eyes. It is believed that the muscle actions of both types of smiles cause the brain to produce chemicals which make us feel good. Smiling can actually help the body adjust during times of stress.
Nature of Smiling
A recent study investigated the nature of smiling. Participants were instructed how to make a standard smile, a genuine smile and a neutral expression. They actually used chop sticks in the mouth to produce the appropriate position for each of the facial expressions.
Participants were then given multiple and extremely stressful activities to perform. During the stressful tasks, blood pressure and heart rate were measured. Those with genuine and polite smiles had decreased blood pressure and pulse, compared to those with neutral facial expressions.
The study concluded that during stressful times, smiling, even if not genuine, is useful in lowering blood pressure and pulse and adapting to stress. This is an important aspect of smiling as stress, which is a major risk factor for stroke, heart attack and diabetes, could actually be lowered. Smiling during stressful events, such as driving in heavy traffic, may help minimize the harmful effects of stress.
Here are some interesting facts about smiling and emotions:
1. The next time you feel down, try putting on a smile. Studies have shown that mood will change for the better and that smiling can improve your mood. (Now there is merit to the song, “Smile Though Your Heart Is Breaking.”)
2. Smiling relieves stress. It can actually help us look less tired than we are and appear more confident to those around us.
3. Smiling may improve our immune system. When we are under heavy stress, the immune system does not work as well.
4. Smiling may lower blood pressure. Try this experiment at home if you have a blood pressure cuff. Take your blood pressure and record it. Then smile for a minute and take another reading. You may find that it has decreased.
5. Studies show that smiling may produce hormones in the brain called endorphins which act as natural pain killers with no harmful side effects. We feel better because of it.
We are all subjected to stress on a daily basis. Smiling, either natural or forced, may be a way to reduce stress. It has been shown that stress is a risk factor for cancer, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Reducing it can improve quality of life and longevity. The fountain of youth may actually be a smile.
Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.