Smile breathing

The benefits of smiling

 I spontaneously smile when I feel happy. But it also works the other way around; if I force a smile on my face, it makes me feel happier. A fake smile relaxes me and brings me many of the benefits of genuine smiling. So, smiling is bidirectional; it’s a result of happiness, and it also initiates happiness. It’s not only when I smile that I become happier; when I’m in the company of smiling people, it’s contagious, and I become more happy.

Not all smiles are created equal; the many types of smiles can be broadly categorized as positive and negative. Examples of negative smiles are sarcastic, sadistic, dominating, and dishonest. On the other hand, there are different positive ones, such as grinning, social, courteous, and hearty smiles. In addition, subtle facial muscle variations can change a smile’s message and the effect it creates. For example, an asymmetrical smile, where one side of the mouth curls up, may turn the smile from positive to neutral or negative.

People who often smile positively have it easier in life. Smiling people leave the impression of being confident, competent, trustworthy, successful, relaxed, sincere, and even physically attractive.

Healthy children smile a few hundred times daily, whereas cheerful adults decorate their faces with a few dozen daily smiles. Sadly, less fortunate people smile only a few times during the day, if at all. Some people smile easily, and others struggle to shift into smiling gear. There are different reasons why people don’t smile so much. It may be because of upbringing, cultural conventions, or when people feel they don’t have reasons to smile. With all the tasks and ambitions in modern societies, many people seldom smile. Just like every other muscle, if ‘smiling muscles’ are not activated frequently, they may lose functionality.

Smiling may positively impact the shape and size of my mouth cavity and even the shape of my face. A ‘smiling muscle’ workout requires effort, particularly for those with a smile deficiency.

Smile transitioning

There are three prominent facial expressions: neutral, smiling, and frowning. These affect me in different ways. Naturally, I prefer to be cheerful rather than uncheerful or dissatisfied.

What happens when I smile? First, a cocktail of mood-enhancing hormones trickles into my bloodstream. These hormones affect me in the same way as a tranquilizer or a painkiller. Not only when I smile do I get a shot of these hormones, even when I watch someone else smiling, a lower dosage of these relaxing agents is released into my bloodstream. That is why I enjoy being in the company of positively smiling people.

So, I forced an ear-to-ear smile and kept it for a prolonged period, hoping to get an overdose of relaxing hormones. But instead, after a short while, I felt that the tranquilizing effect was gradually wearing off. From this observation, I concluded that transitioning in and out of smiles produces better results than freezing my smile for the same period. In other words, smile transitions are more important than smile duration.

On this basis, I put together smiling sequences for comparison and noticed that smile repetitions have a much better effect on me than smile-holding.

The Duchenne smile

After realizing I should smile repeatedly to maximize the tranquilizing effect, I was out to find what sort of positive smile I should adopt to produce the best outcomes.

In the mid-19th century, a French neurologist by the name of Duchenne researched the characteristics of an authentic, positive smile. He tried to determine what differentiates it from a fake smile. Following experiments and observations, he concluded that when people express genuine joy, they activate their facial muscles so that two things happen:

  • The corners of their lips curl up toward their ears.
  • Their eyes become slightly narrower and squinted, so the natural wrinkles at the outer corners of the eyes (known as ‘crow’s feet’) become accentuated.

A smile with these characteristics got named a ‘Duchenne smile.’ Duchenne further concluded that smiling with only one characteristic element may turn it into a negative smile. The following example will demonstrate why both elements of a Duchenne smile are essential to produce a positive effect.

The airline Pan American World Airways, shortened to “Pan Am,” went bankrupt, but the term “Pan Am Smile” still exists. Pan Am flight attendants were instructed to smile whenever interacting with customers. No matter what, even when passengers misbehaved, the attendants were required to smile. Unfortunately, these company rules came with no guidelines on how to smile. So, because of the frequent and prolonged smiling, the personnel stopped engaging their eye muscles and used only the muscles around the mouth when smiling. As a result, their forced courtesy smile became obviously fake and produced a negative effect.

Coming back to my experiments, I faked a Duchenne smile repeatedly, and it felt good. Further investigating positive smiling options, I read that someone suggested adding a third component to the Duchenne smile—teeth exposure.

Smiles can be with an open or closed mouth. For example, smiling with closed lips may project an attempt to hold back or conceal thoughts and attitude, whereas smiling with an open mouth projects the opposite. Furthermore, people are perceived as more credible and open when they smile and reveal their teeth.

When I tried different teeth exposures, a cheesy smile seemed too much; what felt right was lightly exposing my upper set of teeth.

Combining all three elements when smiling—curling my lips, narrowing my eyes, and exposing my upper teeth—further improved the results.


Since my teenage years, I have not eaten meat. That exposes me to the risk of developing a deficiency of vitamin B-12. So, to compensate, I take a B-12 supplement. Similarly, to avoid a ‘good mood’ deficiency, I take a B-Happy supplement—I force myself to smile.

My exhales are guaranteed, but my inhales aren’t. One day, I will exhale and never inhale again. So, if I manage to inhale, I’m sure to complete another breathing cycle—a good reason to smile.

As mentioned, repetitive transitions into smiles produce a cheering effect for me. Furthermore, smiling and breathing are synergetic. Synchronizing smile transitions with my breathing cycle further enhances the cheering effect, and yields added value. I like to call this a smile-breathing exercise. When smile-breathing, my breathing cycle functions as a timer and indicates when to transition. Since my heart starts to beat faster as I inhale and I begin to shift into a ‘fight or flight’ state, that’s the perfect moment to smile.

When inhaling, I fake a Duchenne smile and expose my teeth to get the best effect. Smiling triggers the ‘rest & repair’ state, which contributes to relaxation and curbs the stimulating effect of inhaling. Once I start exhaling and my respiratory muscles recoil, I gradually shift out of the smile into a neutral facial expression. After the exhale, I retain the neutral expression and add a breath-hold, thus relaxing my facial muscles.

I can feel the immensely positive effects of smile-breathing on my well-being. For me, it’s a ‘mood vaccination.’

How I smile-breathe diaphragmatically


  • I sit comfortably with a straight back, close my eyes, and keep my tongue and jaw relaxed.
  • Reset my breathing if needed.
  • Use diaphragmatic breathing exclusively through my nose.
  1. Inhale, partially inflating my abdomen to reach about half of my diaphragm’s amplitude, while smiling with my mouth closed so that the corners of my lips curl up toward my ears – 1 count.
  2. Inhale further to maximum diaphragm amplitude while exposing my teeth and shifting into a Duchenne smile – 1 count.
  3. Exhale gradually, shifting out of the smile, slowly closing my lips, and relaxing my diaphragm to about half of its amplitude – 2 counts.
  4. Exhale further, with my lips closed, until my diaphragm reaches its neutral dome shape – 2 counts.
  5. Hold my breath while keeping a neutral facial expression, thereby relaxing my facial muscles, until I gently reach the point of ‘air-hunger start.’


When I smile-breathe, it may seem that I’m using my mouth for exhaling. I’m not! After exposing my teeth when inhaling, I gradually close my mouth as I exhale through my nose.


I practice other variations of smile-breathing, too. For example, I combine smiling with 3-part breathing instead of diaphragmatic breathing.


How I smile-breathe in 3 parts


  • I sit comfortably with a straight back, close my eyes, and keep my tongue and jaw relaxed.
  • Reset my breathing if needed.
  • Use 3-part breathing exclusively through my nose.
  1. Inhale, partially inflating my abdomen to reach maximum diaphragm amplitude while smiling with my mouth closed so that the corners of my lips curl up toward my ears – 1 count.
  2. Inhale further, inflating my ribcage and chest to maximum amplitude while exposing my teeth and shifting into a Duchenne smile – 1 count.
  3. Exhale gradually, shifting out of the smile, slowly closing my lips, and deflating my chest – 1 count.
  4. Exhale further to deflate my ribcage, and keep a neutral facial expression – 1 count.
  5. Exhale further until my diaphragm reaches about half its amplitude, and retain the neutral facial expression – 1 count.
  6. Exhale further until my diaphragm returns to its neutral dome shape, and retain the neutral facial expression – 1 count.
  7. Hold my breath and retain the neutral facial expression until I gently reach the point of ‘air-hunger start.’

As I exhale, my lips seal gradually like a drawer with a ‘soft close,’ shutting slowly and smoothly. Visualizing pleasant images or thinking of something that naturally makes me smile is another optional addition to the exercise.


When I smile-breathe, my exhale duration is roughly twice my inhale duration, and the holding lasts until I gently reach the point of ‘air-hunger start.’

 Tool Preparation

I use the smile-breathing sequence as a base for various breathing tools, mainly for immediate relaxation and tension release.