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 spontaneous smiling. So, smiling is bidirectional; it‘s a result of happiness, also it 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 joyful.
Not all smiles are created equal; there are many types, which 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 a grin, social, courteous, joyous, and hearty smiles. In addition, subtle facial muscle variations can change a smile’s message and the effect it creates. For example, an asymmetric 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 upbringings, 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. When smiling muscles are not activated frequently, like other muscles, they may lose functionality.
Smiling may positively impact the shape and size of my mouth cavity. Likewise, when my smiling muscles work out, it affects the shape of my face. A ‘smiling muscle workout’ requires effort, particularly for those with a smile deficiency.
The three basic facial expressions affect me in different ways. The neutral facial expression is my usual. A smiling face implies that I’m cheerful. On the other hand, a frowning face implies that I’m dissatisfied. Naturally, I prefer to be cheerful rather than dissatisfied.
What happens when I smile? First, a cocktail of mood-enhancing hormones trickles into my bloodstream. These hormones affect me similarly to a tranquilizer or a painkiller. Not only when I smile do I get a shot of these hormones; even when I watch someone smiling, a lower dosage of these relaxing hormones is released into my bloodstream. That is why I enjoy being in the company of smiling people.
So, I forced an ear-to-ear smile and kept it for a prolonged period, hoping to get an overdose of tranquilizing hormones. But instead, after a while, I felt that the tranquilizing effect was gradually wearing off. From this observation, I concluded that transitioning in and out of a smile 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 had a much better effect on me than smile-holding.
The Duchenne smile
After realizing I should repeatedly smile to maximize the tranquilizing effect, I was out to find what sort of positive smile would produce the best outcome when I forced it.
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 fake smiles. 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 towards the ears.
- Their eyes become slightly narrower and squint, so the natural wrinkles at the outer corner of the eye, known as ‘crow’s feet,’ become accentuated.
A smile with these characteristics got the name “A Duchenne smile.” Duchenne further concluded that smiling with only one element of this smile may turn it into a negative one. 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 got instructions to smile whenever interacting with customers. No matter what, even when passengers misbehaved, they were required to smile. But unfortunately, these company rules came with no guidelines on how to smile. So, because of the frequent and prolonged smiling, personnel didn’t engage their eye muscles and used only the muscles around the mouth. 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 well. Further investigating positive smiling options, I read that someone suggested adding a third component to the Duchenne smile—teeth exposure.
Smiles can be open or closed. For example, smiling with closed lips may project an attempt to cover, hold back, or hide something, whereas smiling with an open mouth projects the opposite. Furthermore, people are perceived as more honest and open when they smile and reveal their teeth.
When I tried different teeth exposures, a cheezy smile felt too much; what felt well was lightly exposing my upper set of teeth.
Combining all three elements when smiling—the sides of my lips curling up, narrowing of my eyes, and exposure of my upper set of teeth—further improved the results.
Since my teenage, I have decided to stop eating meat. That exposes me to the risk of developing a deficiency of vitamin B-12. So, to compensate, I take a supplement of B-12. And, in order 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 a smile produce a positive, cheering effect for me. However, smiling and breathing are synergetic. Synchronizing smiling 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 doubles up as a timer and indicates when to transition. My heart starts to beat faster as I inhale while engaging my diaphragm muscle. That’s the perfect moment to smile. The relaxing effect of smiling contributes to curbing the stimulating effect of inhaling.
When I inhale, I fake a Duchenne smile and expose my teeth to get the best effect. Once I start exhaling and my diaphragm muscle recoils, I gradually shift out of the smile into a neutral facial expression. I keep a neutral expression while holding my breath, thus relaxing my facial muscles. The added breath-hold following the exhale secures that I don’t get into a hyperventilation state because of the repetitions.
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, relax my tongue and jaw, and close my eyes.
- Reset my breathing if needed
- Breathe exclusively through the nose (diaphragmatic breathing).
- Inhale, partially inflating my stomach to reach half of my diaphragm’s amplitude, while smiling with my mouth closed so that the corners of my lips curl up toward my ears, synchronizing the inhale and the smile with one count.
- Inhale further to maximize the diaphragm’s amplitude while exposing my teeth and shifting into a Duchenne smile, synchronizing with the next count.
- For two counts, I exhale gradually, shifting out of the smile, slowly closing my lips, and deflating my diaphragm to about half of its amplitude.
- For two more counts, exhale further, with my lips closed, until my diaphragm reaches its neutral dome shape.
- Hold my breath while keeping a neutral facial expression, relaxing my facial muscles until I gently reach the point of ‘air hunger start.’
Based on the above, 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, relax my tongue and jaw, and close my eyes.
- Reset my breathing if needed.
- Breathe exclusively through the nose (3-part breathing).
- Inhale, partially inflating my stomach to reach maximum diaphragm amplitude, while smiling with my mouth closed so that the corners of my lips curl up toward my ears, synchronizing the inhale and the smile with one count.
- In the next count, I inhale further, inflating my ribcage and chest to maximum amplitude while exposing my teeth and shifting into a Duchenne smile.
- For the following count, exhale gradually, shifting out of the smile, slowly closing my lips, and deflating my chest.
- For one more count, exhale further while keeping a neutral facial expression, deflating my ribcage.
- For one more count, exhale further while keeping my lips closed until my diaphragm reaches half its amplitude.
- For one more count, continue the exhale while keeping my lips closed until my diaphragm returns to its neutral dome shape.
- Hold my breath while keeping a neutral expression, thus relaxing my facial muscles, until I gently reach the point of ‘air hunger start.’
Note: 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.’
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 uplifts my feeling is another optional addition to the exercise.
I use a Smile-Breathing sequence as a base for different breathing tools, mainly for immediate relaxation and tension release.