In The Atlantic you’ll find an interesting story that celebrates the health benefits of smiling. The evidence that those who smile more will be happier and live longer doesn’t conclusively show a causal link between frequent grins and a better life, but the studies suggest it’s possible. Let me say right now, my position on smiling is: we should all do more of it, and this article would suggest I’m on the right side of this issue. (If there was ever a safe position to take on anything, this has to be it, don’t you think?)
Kidding aside, here’s what researchers have found, according to the article. When your brain sends to signal to your face to smile, it travels through the deepest and oldest regions of the brain—the brain stem, roughly the region that controls the autonomic functions, such as breathing, heartbeat and blood pressure. In other words, smiling moves through the region associated with fundamental bodily activities closely aligned with ongoing health. A smile won’t improve your cardiovascular conditioning, but it might lower your blood pressure a bit.
Studies have matched up photographs from the past with the lives of the people in them to see if there’s any correlation between smiles and better lives. While the studies don’t establish a cause-and-effect link, there does seem to be a connection between a smile and a brighter future. Women who had the biggest smiles in college yearbooks tended to have happier marriages and “fewer personal setbacks” in the thirty years after college. Baseball players who had the biggest smiles on baseball cards tended to live the longest—seven years longer, to be exact. Of course, this could mean simply that happier people will tend to have longer, happier lives—and the correlation here is nothing more that the fact that happier people tend to smile more often.
Yet another study showed that people who suffered from facial nerve damage and had difficulty smiling were far more likely to suffer from depression. “Smiling, by activation of the smile muscle, might initiate a feedback loop to the brain, activating our happy part of the brain, contributing to a more positive mood and more smiling. Those with impaired smiling would have the positive feedback interrupted and more consistent weight on the side of depression.”
None of it is conclusive. But one thing is certain. If you want to smile more, and maybe improve your own life and the lives of others—smiles are infectious—then don’t go into hiding. You need to socialize. It isn’t unusual to smile or laugh when you’re alone, if you’re watching a comedy or reading a funny book, but you’re much more likely to smile more often when you’re socializing. In fact, the studies say you’ll smile six times more often when you’re with others.