Why Smile

How many times a day do you smile?

By: Lily Knopp

When my psychology professor asked her students not to smile for ten minutes at a random point in the day, I approached the task with unrealistic expectations. I found it easy to keep a straight face when I was focused or distracted, but when I made the conscious choice to abstain from smiling several psychosocial factors come into play. Which gives smiling the ability to completely change your life in both your physical and mental health.

According to research by Yale University, these factors are contingent upon race, gender, and age; typically, women smile more than men, assuming they are from the same ethnic background. These gender gaps in smiling are larger in teens, and in both men and women when they thought they were being looked at. The reason for this is, “when people know that they are being monitored, they more closely adhere to the norms for appropriate behavior for their gender” (qtd in “Women Smile More”). The norm for women is to be perceived as bright and bubbly, while for men it’s to appear tough, which is not traditionally conveyed with a smile. Additionally, women attempt to diffuse a precarious situation with a smile to “soothe hurt feelings and restore harmony” (“Women Smile More.”), which increases a women’s tendency to smile. It’s commonly known that men are typically more physical while women are known to be emotional beings and more sentient with their mental health. Perhaps smiling more brings about greater awareness of a person’s emotions due to there being a greater difference between when they are happy and when they are sad. For example, people who don’t smile often when they are happy and simply “show it on the inside” may not feel the same extent of their emotions as those who share a smile with others.

As an introvert, I have two sides when I’m in a social setting: the desire to stay quiet and observe until the event is over, or to engage in conversation and laugh and smile freely.

In addition to gender, extroversion and introversion impact the reason why people smile. We typically associate a talkative social setting with lots of people as an extrovert’s oasis. And a serene, secluded house an introvert’s haven. However, a study by Sumathi Reddy suggests that extroverts are generally happier, and introverts feel happier if they act happy in social settings. While this might not prove true for every introvert, it certainly works for me. As an introvert, I have two sides when I’m in a social setting: the desire to stay quiet and observe until the event is over, or to engage in conversation and laugh and smile freely. While some might argue that the latter side means I’m an ambivert, extroversion and introversion are dependent on where a person takes their energy from. Extroverts ‘charge their batteries’ from social interaction, for example after a long day at work an extrovert might decompress by hanging out with friends at a party, whereas an introvert relaxes by heading home to chillax. It is important to understand what makes you happy and to recognize when you’re giving a genuine smile and when you’re faking it and may need a break.

In these two situations, one group of people is expected to smile and laugh more, the extroverts. When in a social setting, people have “an instinct for facial mimicry” which “allows us to empathize with and even experience other people’s feelings. If we cannot mirror another person’s face, it limits our ability to read and properly react to their expressions” (“Why Smiles are Contagious.”). This does not mean that introverts are not happy, it simply means that due to an introvert’s preferred habitat, being one with fewer people to engage with, an introvert has fewer reasons to smile and laugh, due to limited opportunities for facial mimicry to occur. In other words, an introvert is no less happy than an extrovert, but typically when you are secluded there are fewer reasons to display your joyful emotions because there is no one to react to them. (“Why Smiles are Contagious.”).

One hypothesis by Reddy suggests that “being talkative and engaging influences how other people respond to you”, thus if you’re more outgoing and loquacious more people will respond to you. If we take facial mimicry into account, the more a person receives social feedback the more opportunities there are for an emotional response to be triggered, such as a smile or a laugh.

With the right group of people, being outgoing and talkative makes me feel appreciated.

However, it may not always be healthy for an extrovert or introvert to stray from their core beliefs. Another theory by Reddy suggests that “people get more satisfaction when they express their core self and opinions”, in other words, it is good to stretch your social boundaries however, prolonged states of doing so may cause detrimental effects on your health. A study by Dr. Zelenski took 150 college students and instructed them to act extroverted or introverted. According to the results they “didn’t find a lot of evidence for… the idea that acting like an extrovert would wear out introvert,” however, “acting like an introvert tended to wear out extroverts” (qtd. in Reddy), who in turn performed worse on cognitive tests. The reason for this may be that introverts can “recharge” their batteries at home after a party, however, extroverts gain their energy from such a party that when they leave the party acting as an introvert, their batteries can not be filled at home in a secluded setting.

Additionally, “Introverts kind of underestimate how much fun it will be to act extroverted” and “misjudge how they would feel after acting extroverted. They often predicted feelings of anxiety and embarrassment, which never transpired” (Reddy). As an anxious introvert, when I get invited to social events I often dread going, but once I am at an event, I typically find myself having fun. Now, in some cases when I try to display extroverted characteristics, I feel misunderstood or ignored which makes me feel disheartened and wish that I had stayed home. In situations like this, it is best to act yourself and, in some instances, that means that it is better to recharge your batteries early by heading home. However, in most cases with the right group of people, being outgoing and talkative makes me feel appreciated, and acting like an extrovert rewards me with a smile on my face and a sore stomach from laughing.

Furthermore, “it may be overstimulating socially to engage in eye contact, but under certain conditions, if you encourage eye contact, the benefit is spontaneous or automatic facial mimicry” (“Why Smiles are Contagious”). In other words, pushing yourself to engage with other people and maintain eye contact promotes accurate reading of emotions and empathy for other people. These two actions foster the development of healthy social skills that create strong and happy relationships.

In addition to social benefits, laughter also promotes a healthy immune system and reduces stress. When we smile, chemicals such as Neuropeptides, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are released. These may seem unimportant, but the benefits of each chemical provide insight into why we feel better physically when we smile. Endorphins replicate the effects of mild pain relievers and serotonin replicated the effect of an antidepressant. Together these two chemicals work to heal both physical and emotional health. However, laughter is not limited to these effects, “laughter also helps to: Enhance oxygen intake, stimulate the heart and lung, relax muscles throughout the body, trigger the release of endorphins ease digestion/soothe stomach aches, relieve pain, and improve mental functions” (“The Health Benefits of Smiling”).

As for the immune system side of laughing, “laughing increases the production of antibodies and activates the body’s protective cells” according to US researchers at the University of California-Irvine (qtd. in “Laughter may be the Best Medicine”). These protective cells are even linked to fighting cancer, when we laugh IFN levels in our body are increased. Interferon-gamma is crucial to a healthy body because it fights off cancer and the growth of tumors by stimulating B-cells, NK cells, T-cells, and immunoglobulin. These cells regulate cell growth and aid in a healthy immune system (“Laughter May Be the Best Medicine”).

We are more productive when we are uplifted and happy.

These chemicals, amongst others, reduce inflammation in the body by sending the same endorphins released during exercise to the brain. Laughter can even thwart cardiovascular diseases due to its similar effects to exercising. Furthermore, by diminishing stress hormones, blood cells’ oxidization levels drop, meaning that “laughing lowers your blood pressure. Since stress contributes to high blood pressure, laughter works oppositely” (“Laughter May Be the Best Medicine”). These endorphins can be equated to the body’s natural painkillers. In 1964, Norman Cousins became very sick after a stressful trip to Russia, he was diagnosed with a fatal illness and given only six months to live. His logic was that since stress made him ill the opposite would make him better. Cousins experienced little to no pain after several years of laughter therapy. With the help of laughter, he cured his disease and lived to be seventy-five years old (“Laughter May Be the Best Medicine”).

Laughter also has an influence on productivity levels. According to Reddy, extroverts are more motivated than introverts, because extroverts have a greater sensitivity to dopamine, which plays a big role in the external reward factor. In addition, “human happiness has a large and positive causal effect on productivity…positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings, while negative emotions have the opposite effect” (Doward). In other words, we are more productive when we are uplifted and happy.

In one study, students were told to complete basic math equations in ten minutes. After completing this task, students from group one were shown a comedy routine video by a comedian. Compared to the group that did not see the video, the people in group one that reported elevated happiness levels after watching the video were significantly more productive than those that did not and those in the other groups. Similarly, people who had a loved one die within the past two years did 10% worse than the others, while the happier workers were 12% more productive (Doward).

In conclusion, smiling has exuberant benefits such as a healthier immune system, happier social life, and increased productivity. Regardless of where you get your energy, attending social events increases your chances of smiling and laughing which in turn rewards you with a healthier lifestyle. In other words, making eye contact and engaging with other people is worth the risk. Take time in your day to look up and smile. Even if it’s hard to smile, count your blessings or fake a smile until it becomes a genuine smile. Push your boundaries, but always observe your health and stay true to yourself.

Header Photo: Colgate Smile by Tony Nguyen on Flickr

Works Cited

“LAUGHTER MAY BE THE BEST MEDICINE. IT CAN BOOST YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM AND REDUCE STRESS, ACCORDING TO RESEARCHERS.” US Fed News Service, Including US State News, Nov 04, 2019. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/wire-feeds/laughter-may-be-best-medicine-can-boost-your/docview/2312211555/se-2.

“Why Smiles are Contagious.” The Science Teacher, vol. 83, no. 4, 2016, pp. 20-20,22.ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/why-smiles-are-contagious/docview/1780963545/se-2.

“The Health Benefits of Smiling” SCL Health, accessed 1 March 2023, https://www.sclhealth.org/blog/2019/06/the-real-health-benefits-of-smiling-and-laughing/#:~:text=Release%20the%20Endorphins!&text=The%20endorphins%20act%20as%20a,and%20reduce%20our%20heart%20rate.

Doward, Jamie “Happy people really do work harder” The Guardian, 10 July 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jul/11/happy-workers-are-more-productive

“Women smile more than men, but differences disappear when they are in the sme role, Yale researcher finds” Yale, 10 March 2003 https://news.yale.edu/2003/03/18/women-smile-more-men-differences-disappear-when-they-are-same-role-yale-researcher-finds

Reddy, Sumathi. “How an Introvert can be Happier: Act Like an Extrovert; Extroverts are Generally Happier, Studies show. and Research shows Introverts Feel Happier when they Act Extroverted.” Wall Street Journal, Jul 23, 2013. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/how-introvert-can-be-happier-act-like-extrovert/docview/1411097348/se-2.