The Science of A Smile: How it Literally Reprograms Our Brain

“We shall never know all the good a simple smile can do”

~ Mother Teresa


What’s in a smile? The general idea is that our emotions affect our behavior, but what if simple changes in our behaviors or body movements could affect how we actually feel? It turns out, our body works in more interesting ways than we previously knew, and the simple act of consciously choosing to smile can in itself make us feel happier.

I’m not one to tout happiness down anyone’s throat, though I genuinely do wish for everyone to live a fulfilling life. It’s what I want for myself too, but I admit it’s not always easy.

In life, matters aren’t always clear-cut, we may often not find the answers we’re looking for, and constant change is central to the nature of life. We go through hardships, through challenges, struggles, loss, and our sense of reality as well as self can, and often does, change.

On our unique personal soul journeys, there is this moment that we may recognize as a universal experience. So much so, that it can almost be seen as a cliché. You may catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, and realize you don’t recognize yourself anymore. You no longer are the person you thought you were, and maybe there is something missing in life.

Life didn’t turn out as expected, or maybe it did but it still doesn’t move your heart like you imagined it would. Maybe the stories you believed in, you see as no longer true, or maybe you aren’t sure whether they are or not. Whatever it is, you see a blank slate, or a stranger when you see yourself in this mirror. This moment, my friend, is a magical moment, calling out to you to recreate yourself, reconnect with yourself, or perhaps meet yourself for the first time.

Do you see that mouth of yours located at the lower portion of your face (provided you’re a terrestrial being, and not reading this from mars)? Playing with this, you can help make your world and other people’s world a happier and warmer place. Of course, I mean by wearing your beautiful smile.

How Our Brains Create a Smile?

When we think of a memory that brings us joy or have any experience that makes us feel happy, that information gets processed by the brain, which then triggers certain muscles. These muscles include the zygomaticus major around the mouth, drawing upwards into a smile, as well as the cheek raising orbicularis oculi muscle, the contraction of which is the key ingredient to a genuine smile. This is an involuntary response.

On the other hand, we can make a conscious smile, which involves just the zygomaticus major. Though this smile in itself doesn’t have the effect a genuine smile of ours has on others, it can still make us feel better.

What a Smile Can Do to Us

The way it works is that when we move our muscles in such way, to make a smile, we cause our “thin facial bones to distort slightly”which makes more blood flow to our brains’ frontal lobes. As explains, this action of the body leads to the release of more dopamine, which mingles with brain chemicals known as opioids. This interaction releases happiness into our bodies.

In other words, our brain can’t tell the difference. The smile does to it what the smile does to it, and it responds gratefully. Apparently, the smile can have the same effect on our levels of happiness as exercise, and can even be “as stimulating as receiving up to 16, 000 pounds sterling in cash”!

Being in a happier state, even if it’s physically induced, can automatically cause us to think happier and more positive thoughts. The flow state can bring to us more creative thinking, and help us become more engaged creators of our lives along our soul journeys.

Our smile can also influence the people around us. Us smiling invites others to smile back, and according to a Swedish study, they almost can’t help but do so. According to Ding Lee, “seeing people smile stimulates our mirror neurons to suppress our facial muscle control, and trigger a smile”.

Smiling at others, and others smiling back, builds connection, and increases positive feelings. Just like one person’s bad mood can pull others down, our happy moods can be uplifting to others. According to Marianne Le France, author of Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions, a baby  and its mother, smiling back and forth, is key to a baby’s “physical and psychological development”.

This shows that even since we were babies, smiling was important to us, and reassured us of security and warmth. Why not show the warmth that nature wants a mother to show their children to our own selves and our loved ones?  Humans are social creatures, and even our primal involuntary functions communicate that. As we are on our soul journeys, we can use this gift of experiencing our human selves as a way to represent the inner longings of our souls.

The Art of Smiling More Often

Here are some ways we can add more smiling into our daily lives!

  1. Practice smiling. I remember reading a neat trick once, which was to smile a wide smile about 30 times a day. This way, our muscles can get used to smiling more, and it can become a more automatic response.

  2. Here is another smile exercise shared by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman:

    “We ask a person, before they engage in a conversation with someone else, visualize someone they deeply love, or recall an event that brought them deep satisfaction and joy. It’s such an easy exercise, and we train people to do it in our workshops.”

  1. Play any music that has an uplifting effect on you, and move with it. You may find that your facial expressions begin to match the energy of the song. In the end, you may find your physical state to be quite different than before the song.

  2. As we seek happy moments and reasons to smile, we may find them come to us more. One way to do this is to visualize what happiness and genuine smiles look like. What are we doing? What do we look like? How are we interacting with others?

  3. Make a note to try to find at least 3 moments of happiness every day. This can start with a question like “what makes other people smile?” as well as “what makes me smile?”. Make note of it, and see if you can include such moments in your own life.

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh



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