Just grin and bear it – we’ve all heard it at one point or another in our lives, and we’ve probably hated hearing it. But could there be some real scientific fact behind this piece of advice? Can smiling actually help you feel better?
In a study forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas take a look at the benefits of smiling by analyzing different types of smiles, as well as the impact of smiling awareness and how it affects individuals’ ability to recover from episodes of stress.
“Age old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” says Kraft. “We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits.”
Smiles are typically divided into two categories: standard smiles and genuine (or Duchenne) smiles. The difference is that in standard smiles, the muscles around the mouth contract, while in genuine smiles, both the muscles around the mouth and the eyes contract. Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion; however, the work of Kraft and Pressman is the first of this kind, which experimentally manipulate the types of smiles people make in order to examine the effects of smiling on stress.
Smile like you mean it
The researchers recruited 169 participants from a university, and the study consisted of two phases: training and testing. During the training phase, the participants were divided into three groups, and each group was asked to display a different facial expression. Interestingly, participants were asked to hold chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that they engaged facial muscles used to create a neutral facial expression, a standard smile, or a Duchenne smile. The chopsticks were essential for the task because they forced people to smile without them being aware that they were doing so: only half of the group members were actually instructed to smile.
For the testing phase, participants were asked to multitask; what they didn’t know was that the multitasking activities were designed to be stressful. During all stressful tasks, participants held the chopsticks in their mouth just as they were taught in training. The researchers tested heart rates and self reported stress levels throughout this phase.
The results of the study seem to indicate that there is a clear connection between smiling and our physical state. Compared to participants who held neutral facial expressions, smiling subjects (especially those with Duchenne smiles) had lower heart rate activities after recovery from stressful activities. But whats even more interesting, participants who held chopsticks in a manner that forced them to smile, but were not explicitly told to smile as part of the training also reported a smaller decrease in positive affect compared to those who held neutral facial expressions.
“The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress,” says Pressman, “you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!”