Smiles and laughs are simple things. Or, are they? While a seemingly insignificant part of most days, our smiles and laughs have more implications than we realize. Studies show that there are numerous benefits of both, including boosts in our mental and physical health, better social lives and even increased lifespans.
Why Do We Smile and Laugh?
A genuine smile is produced without us realizing it. A true laugh comes out without any thought. That said, we don’t only smile or laugh when we feel genuinely content and happy. In fact, humans smile for other reasons, including to be polite or to appear approachable. We might laugh out of embarrassment or even fear. Laughter and smiling are complex behaviors that have prompted a lot of research.
Both smiling and laughing have been studied extensively for centuries. French scientist Guillaume Duchenne was a French neurologist who studied laughter and smiling in the 1800s, and he found that two facial muscles are engaged during smiling. One is the zygomatic major which controls the corners of our mouth. We can activate this muscle when we want. The other is the orbicularis oculi, which controls the area around our eyes. We can’t activate this muscle at will. That means, only with a genuine laugh or smile, what has now been dubbed a Duchenne smile, are both our mouth and eyes engaged.
Newer research expands on the fact that smiles aren’t always caused by pure happiness or contentment. Dr. Harry Witchel conducted research that suggests smiling is driven less by an inner cheerfulness and instead is a social cue based on engagement.
The study Dr. Witchel performed consisted of participants completing a quiz on a computer. He found that interaction with the computer caused participants to smile and, surprisingly, they were more likely to smile when they answered incorrectly. Witchel attributed this finding to evolution’s effects on human behavior or behavioral ecology theory, a Darwinian approach to the study of behaviors.
“According to some researchers, a genuine smile reflects the inner state of cheerfulness or amusement,” Witchel said. “However, behavioral ecology theory suggests that all smiles are tools used in social interactions; that theory claims that cheerfulness is neither necessary nor sufficient for smiling.”
The multitude of research done suggests that we probably smile out of true happiness and out of social necessity. Laughter isn’t much different.
When it comes to laughter, there are two types: social and involuntary. Professor Sophie Scott, a professor known for her TED Talk called “Why We Laugh.” In an interview with Business Insider, she said “I think that the two most important kinds of laughs or distinctions between laughs are whether or not they are completely involuntary or if they’re a bit more communicative.”
Like smiling, laughter can be the product of social interaction or bubble up all on its own. Scott pointed out that, with involuntary laughter, you sometimes can’t stop laughing, and the laugh itself seems to take over your body. Social laughter, on the other hand, is a controlled part of interactions. “We’re laughing as much to show that we like someone, we know someone, we’re part of the same group as someone. We understand them,” Scott said.
Though more research is needed into why we smile and laugh, it’s apparent that there are psychological and physical benefits to laughter and smiling. Read on to find out more about how laughter and smiling positively impact your life.
We’re laughing as much to show that we like someone, we know someone, we’re part of the same group as someone. We understand them.”– Professor Sophie Scott
The Benefits of Smiling and Laughter
The physical and psychological benefits of laughter and smiling are plentiful. Research shows that those who consciously or subconsciously smile more live better and longer.
Though not all of them, here are some of the benefits of smiling and laughing.
You’re More Approachable
Research shows there are benefits to smiling at others. You may have heard that laughter is contagious. Studies show this is indeed true.
Scott pointed out, “This response in the brain, automatically priming us to smile or laugh, provides a way or mirroring the behavior of others, something which helps us interact socially. It could play an important role in building strong bonds between individuals in a group.”
This means when you smile or laugh, your positivity will likely be reflected, helping you form relationships and cultivate positivity.
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Your Body Releases Good Hormones
Your body releases three hormones that make you feel good when you smile. They include dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. These signal to your body that you’re happy, and in turn, you feel happier.
Author of “Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act” Ron Gutman said, “British researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate.”
In fact, even if you force a smile, you’ll feel better. While it might not be a natural Duchenne smile, you can in fact make yourself feel better simply by forcing a smile. Interestingly, a small British study even suggested those who used BOTOX and physically could not frown felt happier.
You Have Better Relationships
Writer William Arthur Ward said, “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” This is indeed true. Laughter and smiling promote camaraderie and help us produce social bonds.
In fact, laughter has been connected to emotional well-being in couples. In a study conducted in 2015, psychologists recorded 71 romantic couples explaining how they first met. They found that the amount of the conversation spent simultaneously laughing was positively associated with relationship quality, closeness and social support.
As we mentioned before, laughter communicates that two people are part of something together. Therefore, it strengthens bonds and deepens relationships.
“A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.”– William Arthur Ward
You’re More Productive at Work
Jessica Pryce-Jones, the author of “Happiness at Work,” said “Happiness at work is closely correlated with greater performance and productivity as well as greater energy, better reviews, faster promotion, higher income, better health and increased happiness with life.”
Pryce-Jones and her team performed research that showed that the happier a worker felt, the more productive they were. Her research compiled results from 3,000 people in 79 countries. The happiest employees were 180% more energized and 155% happier with their jobs. They spent 80% of their week on work-related tasks, compared to the 40% their least happy coworkers spent.
Since many of us spend a good portion of our lives in the workplace, feeling productive and happy is important. Therefore, starting to laugh and smile more at work is beneficial.
You Relieve Stress
The stress reduction effects from laughter are well documented. Laughter can cool down your stress response by decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure, causing you to feel more relaxed. Laughter also stimulates circulation that helps your muscles relax, which can reduce the physical symptoms of stress over time.
As we discussed above, you’ll also get a dose of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin to put you in a better mood moving forward. Smiling and laughter, even during difficult times, can truly help a person deal with stress and come out the other side healthier.
You May Live Longer
Everything mentioned above may lead to this important point. Those who smile and laugh often may have longer lives than those that don’t.
A 15-year Norwegian study published in April of 2016 found that women with strong senses of humor lived longer than others. In fact, they were 73% less likely to die from heart disease and 83% less likely to die from infection. Men with a better sense of humor seemed to be more protected from infection only, with 74% less risk of death associated with high scores in humor.
Laughter stimulates organs. It can enhance your intake of oxygen, stimulate your heart and other muscles and decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. Less stress, better social relationships and a stronger overall feeling of happiness can indeed help you weather the physical effects of aging. In short, the secret to staying young is truly to laugh a lot.
How Do I Find Ways to Laugh and Smile More?
If all these smile benefits have you asking how you can help yourself laugh and smile more, there are many things you can do. Here are a few things to try to encourage more laughter and smiling in your life:
- Force it if you must: Since even a fake smile can increase your feelings of happiness, the first step to being happier is smiling even when you don’t feel like it.
- Find humor: If you’re feeling down or even just notice that you haven’t laughed in a while, put on a funny movie, read some jokes or seek out a humor boost in any way you enjoy.
- Engage with others: We are socialized to laugh and smile more in a group. Make sure you spend time with friends who make you do both regularly.
- Laugh at yourself: Life is really all about how you approach things. Even if you’re going through hard times, look for the good or the humor. This will positively impact your outlook, your health and your overall quality of life.
The psychology of smiling and laughing give us plenty to study and explore. Are you interested in learning more? Our online bachelor’s degree in psychology is sure to make anyone interested in the field of psychology smile. At UWA, you can earn your degree entirely online at one of the state’s most affordable institutions. If you already hold a bachelor’s degree but would like to sharpen your scholarly research skills, you could benefit from our online master’s in experimental psychology.