Some days it can be hard to crack a smile. We’re late for work. We spilled our coffee. There’s two weeks’ worth of laundry waiting for us.
But according to a study by psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas, the simple act of smiling can help us recover from stressful situations.
“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 promote smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” Kraft said. “We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit, whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits.”
There are two categories that smiles fall into: standard smiles, which use the muscles surrounding the mouth; and genuine, or Duchenne, smiles, which engage the muscles surrounding the mouth and eyes. While previous research has proven that smiling can affect emotion, Kraft and Pressman set out to experimentally manipulate the types of smiles to examine the effects of smiling on stress.
The study involved 169 participants from a Midwestern university who were divided into three groups; each group was trained to hold a different facial expression. Participants held chopsticks in their mouths, engaging facial muscles used to create a neutral facial expression, a standard smile or a Duchenne smile. Why chopsticks? Because they forced people to smile without being aware they were doing so. Half of the group was instructed to smile.
Participants were then put to work on multitasking activities, which were designed to be stressful — although participants were not aware of that fact. This included submerging a hand in ice water.
During the stressful tasks, participants held the chopsticks in their mouths, while researchers measured heart rates and self-reported stress levels.
The results? Smiling may influence our physical state. Compared with participants who held neutral facial expressions, participants who were instructed to smile —particularly those with Duchenne smiles — had lower heart rates after recovery from stress. The participants with chopsticks also reported a smaller decrease in positive affect compared with those who held neutral facial expressions.
So even if you feel less than happy at the moment, during moments of stress, forcing a smile may just reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response.
“The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress,” Pressman said, “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!”