Smiling is a pretty universal indicator of happiness among humans. Not only does it make everyone look nicer, friendlier, and more approachable, but moreover, smiling also changes how you view the world. According to new research, the act of smiling can actually inspire feelings of joy and lift your mood. Looks like we've all got another reason to go look at adorable, "awww"-inducing cat pictures, right? Nothing brings a smile to your face quite as quickly as cute animals!
In a new study published in Social Cognitive and Effective Neuroscience, a research team studied the theory that when we smile, we perceive other people's emotions differently: For example, when you're smiling, a frown might appear to be less severe than it actually is, and when you're frowning, a smile may appear less vibrant. To figure out what might be behind this phenomenon, the researchers used electroencephalography to record the brainwaves of 25 participants while they were looking at faces of people who were either smiling or people with neutral expressions on their faces. They found that when participants were wearing a neutral expression themselves, their brain activity associated with facial recognition spiked when they were looking at smiling faces as compared to neutral faces; however, when participants were smiling themselves, they actually perceived the neutral faces to be smiling (even though they weren't). So basically, when you're happier, you perceive other people to be happy. If everyone starts smiling, maybe we'll achieve world peace. Or something. Hey, it's a nice thought, right?
Because changes in expression and smiling are perceived at such a minute level, it's pretty disconcerting to see a smile that looks fake. According to this HowStuffWorks video, fake smiles are easily recognizable because they don't extend to the eyes. Furthermore, people who fake smile a lot show less emotional activity in their brain, as do people who have had plastic surgery to alter their facial muscles (which makes it hard or difficult to naturally smile).
In a TED Talk called "The Hidden Power of Smiling," Ron Gutman discusses how the evolutionarily beneficial trait of smiling can actually help us predict how long we live: The longer the duration of a person's smile (and the more joyful the smile appeared to be), the longer you live. So next time someone tells you your smile is contagious, let them know that you're basically doing them a huge favor by adding years to their life.
Mood enhancement, anxiety alleviation, and long lifespans — all that should be reason enough to step up your smiling game, whether it's at other people, in the mirror, or alone when no one (including your reflection) is looking. Not enough reason to flash those pearly whites? Maybe the song "Smile! No One Cares How You Feel" by the Gothic Archies can change your mind.
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