What's in a Smile?

Getty Images - OJO Images - Robert Daly

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh

"Smile - it's free therapy."
-- Douglas Horton

Maybe those sound like just sappy, supposedly inspirational quotes. They don't really mean anything. Right? Maybe ... maybe not.

Expression Affects Emotion

In psychology, there is a theory entitled the "facial feedback" hypothesis. This hypothesis states that "involuntary facial movements provide sufficient peripheral information to drive emotional experience." The authors of another study wrote that "feedback from facial expression affects emotional expression and behavior." In simple terms, you may actually be able to improve your mood by simply smiling!

A number of research projects support this hypothesis. One study found that involuntary biological changes similar to those caused by emotions were experienced by participants who were instructed to make certain faces. A person told to make an angry face experienced increased blood flow to the hands and feet, which is also seen in those who are experiencing anger. Participants from another study involving posed faces reported more favorable impressions of other people when they were asked to smile.

Research has also found that when you mimic the face of someone else, it may cause you to feel empathy for the other person. In another research setting, participants were either prevented or encouraged to smile by being instructed how to hold a pencil in their mouths. Those who held a pencil in their teeth and thus were able to smile rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held the pencil in their lips and thus could not smile.

So what does all of this mean? The next time you are down - the next time you are feeling blue or just plain old blah - SMILE. An action as simple as that just may improve your spirits. It is most certainly not a cure-all, but in the struggle with feeling gloomy, every thing that helps in even a small measure is worth a try.

Dame Sybil Hathaway summmed it up best when she said, "Smile, damn it! Smile!"


But I Can't Smile!

Having trouble forcing a smile? Here are a few suggestions that may help bring one on.

Jump on the bed
Make faces at yourself in the mirror
Bake cookies
Find a playground and swing on the swingset (I find this one wonderful)
Look at your baby pictures
Hug someone you love
Take a walk in the sun - or the rain
Watch cartoons you loved as a kid
Imitate a celebrity - with exaggeration
Visit a pet store
Sing a happy song
Blow bubbles and watch them (works for me every time)
Watch children playing and laughing
Eat a bit of your favorite junk food - slowly, savoring it

Reasons to Smile

Lots of Special Smile Days

  • Celebrate Share a Smile Day in March
  • Celebrate National Smile Week in August

Smile Grab Bag


Bernstein, D. A., Clarke-Stewart, A., Penner, L. A., Roy, E. J., & Wickens, C. D. (2000). Psychology (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Davis, S. F., & Palladino, J. J. (2000). Psychology (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Continue Reading