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A Good Reason to Smile

There's nothing like a smile--it's a powerful tool, because it helps us heal. Feeling good usually makes us smile, but does it work the other way around? Can smiling actually make us feel better? 

Psychologists investigated the potential benefits of smiling by looking at how different types of smiling, and the awareness of smiling, affects individuals' ability to recover from episodes of stress.

Psychologist Tara Kraft says, "Age old adages, such as 'grin and bear it' have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life's stressful events. We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits."

Smiles are generally divided into two categories: standard smiles, which use the muscles surrounding the mouth, and genuine smiles, which engage the muscles surrounding both the mouth and eyes. Most of us would assume that the second kind of smile is the REAL one. Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion--however, this is the first study to experimentally manipulate the types of smiles people make in order to examine the effects of smiling on stress.

Participants were trained to hold different facial expressions, then they held chopsticks in their mouths in a way that created a smile. This let them "smile" without feeling the kind of emotion that would usually engender this reaction. The results of the study suggest that smiling may actually influence our physical state: compared to participants who held neutral facial expressions, participants who were instructed to smile (and used chopsticks to do so) had lower heart rate levels after recovery from stressful activities.

These findings show that smiling during brief stressors can help to reduce the intensity of the body's stress response, regardless of whether a person actually FEELS happy. Researcher Sarah Pressman says, "The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you 'grin and bear it' psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!"

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