The Science Behind Smiling (It’s A Super Power)


Smiling can make us feel better, even if we fake it. A team of researchers combed through about 50 years of research to answer the question, “Can the act of smiling actually make you happier?” They found that the physical act of smiling does have a small impact on actual feelings — in fact, a frown can make you feel sadder, a scowl can make you feel angier, and a smile can make you somewhat happier.

Scientists have been studying facial expressions and emotions for centuries to understand how nonverbal communication can impact the way humans (and, sometimes animals) feel.

Some studies show strong links between happiness and lower levels of stress, improved wellness and living longer. Other studies show the contagious effects of facial expressions — when you smile, you positively affect people around you.

What happens to your body when you smile? Well, it depends on the nature of your smile.

Three Types of Smiles

Some researchers classify smiles into three categories: smiles of reward, smiles of affiliation, and smiles of dominance (Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison).

Smiles of reward: These types of smiles are the most genuine, the ones that you can’t resist when you see someone you love, when someone cracks a joke, or when you experience a joyful moment. Scientists named this the Duchenne smile, after a scientist who studied facial expressions. The Duchenne smile is one of true joy, it is said. It is obvious when not only the corners of your mouth are upturned, but your teeth are showing and all of the smile muscles are involved in the smile. This type of smile has the biggest impact on your emotions.

Smiles of affiliation: A polite smile to a passerby, a kind expression to greet a coworker, a smile that tells someone you’re listening — these are affiliative smiles that communicate acknowledgement, tolerance, and familiarity. They say, “I’m listening” and “I see you.” An affiliative smile uses fewer muscles than reward smiles — usually closed lips and upturned corners of the mouth. The cheeks and eyes are less involved. Although it doesn’t have as much of an impact on your emotions as a reward smile, it can send happiness signals from your brain to the rest of your body.

Smiles of dominance: This type of smile signifies status or social hierarchy. It may (or may not!) be mistaken for a sneer. The dominant smile conveys a message of confidence and leadership. You might see a dominant smile on a poker player with a weak hand, who’s trying to bluff fellow players. It might not be the most sincere smile, but it’s a smile nonetheless.

Why identify different types of smiles? The hope is that researchers will use these types to differentiate between the emotional responses that happen to our bodies when we fake it versus when we genuinely express happiness.

The Smile Muscles

The human face has 43 muscles, but not all of them are used for the act of smiling, and not all types of smiles use the same sets of muscles. The image below shows 7 major muscle groups for facial expressions.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons, CNX Anatomy 2013, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

What Happens to Your Body When You Smile

When you smile, your pituitary gland releases endorphins and serotonin into your bloodstream. Endorphins are natural painkillers that our bodies release during exercise, stress and moments filled with high emotions (both good and bad). Serotonin is our body’s natural antidepressant. These are the reasons why, when you look at a smiling baby, you feel joyful and momentarily forget all the things that stress you out (Source: VisibleBody).

In another study, researchers found that participants who were forced to smile, regardless of their actual feelings, during stressful tasks still had lower heart rates and experienced less physical signs of stress.

There is also research that suggests smiling — actually, optimism — can help us live longer. Optimistic people, who would naturally tend to smile more, not only tend to live longer but they have a greater chance of living past age 85.

How to Boost Your Smile

With a little understanding about the science behind smiling, what can you do to boost your own smile? Here are some tips:

  • Whiten your teeth. Studies have shown that people who feel more confident about their smiles are more likely to share them. A home whitening kit that not only brightens your smile but also protects your teeth is a good place to start.
  • Make eye contact when you smile. Be deliberate and greet people first with a smile, even if it’s an affiliative one. Be careful not to stare, though; in some cultures a lingering smile can turn creepy quickly.
  • Smile when no one’s looking. When you find your thoughts drifting toward the negative, try smiling and wishing someone well.
  • Next time someone cuts you off in traffic or jumps a line at the coffee shop, try a smile instead of a scowl.

Notice how people around you react when you smile versus when you make no expression at all or when you frown or scowl. Smiles are contagious. Spread the joy.


Agan Jarick
the authorAgan Jarick