Explore the science behind your smile
Smiling has an array of wellbeing benefits, but during an era of masks and working from home, how can we still benefit from those “feel-good” vibes?

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy,” says peace activist, spiritual leader and Buddhist poet Thich Nhat Hanh. There is truth in his words. Researchers at the University of Kansas found that smiling helps to reduce the body’s response to stress and can lower the heart rate in tense situations. Several other studies suggest that smiling can cause people to feel more uplifted or fulfilled, can help maintain blood pressure and can even lead to improved immunity.

During the pandemic, our faces have often been hidden behind facemasks or Zoom’s “camera-off” setting. There has been less opportunity to smile at store attendants, neighbours and colleagues. With facemasks and working from home likely to continue, at least in some capacity, how can we still reap the wellbeing benefits of a smile?

The science of smiling

With our faces often hidden, you might think there is little point in smiling if no-one can see it, but think again. According to Annika Rose, a Perth-based happiness scientist and wellbeing author, “When we smile, we release chemicals into the nervous system that reach our brain and tell us we’re happy.

The brain responds by releasing a combination of happy hormones — serotonin, endorphins and dopamine that lift your mood, make you feel good and urge you to repeat this rewarding behaviour. Signals are sent around your nervous system and the good feelings flow in a positive feedback loop as you feel good, smile more and on it goes.”

Researchers have long agreed that not all smiles are created equal. There are 19 types of smiles, including embarrassed, fake and flirtatious, but only six of these express true joy. The most genuine type of joyful smile is known as the Duchenne smile (named after 19th-century neurologist and smile researcher Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne); it’s the smile that reaches your eyes and lights up your face, an expression of true enjoyment. Non-Duchenne smiles are generally considered to be “polite” smiles — perhaps including that awkward lip tightening you do when you walk past a colleague you don’t know very well in the corridor.

Survival instinct

Not only does smiling lead to an abundance of wellbeing benefits, it also helps strengthen social bonds. Smiles, when shared, create a kind of “social cohesion” that enables us to feel empathy and help one another to survive. Annika explains: “A smile stimulates your brain’s reward mechanism more strongly than money or chocolate has the capacity to do. There’s an evolutionary benefit to smiling too; researchers believe that smiles were used as a survival mechanism, signalling that you were willing to bond and form relationships with others around you. It’s an instinctive and universally understood facial expression, a cross-cultural communication of something ‘good’.”

Community transmission

Smiles are contagious, as the famous Louis Armstrong song says: “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” Some researchers believe this instinct for facial mimicry is an evolutionary trait that allows us to empathise with others’ feelings. “We naturally simulate other people’s facial expressions in social settings to better understand their experience by creating it for ourselves and seeing how it feels, so that we can relate,” says Annika.

Ros Ben-Moshe is a laughter therapist and founder of LaughLife, an organisation that runs laughter therapy and wellbeing programs. Ros says smiles are easily transmitted because of mirror-neurons, brain cells that fire when we receive a smile, stimulating us to mirror it. “If I gave you a heartfelt smile, even if you weren’t feeling great today, your brain doesn’t have time to process the analytical side and it triggers these mirror-neurons,” she explains. “It’s a wonderful ripple effect of positivity.”

Unprecedented smiling

But during a time when our lips are often masked, how else can we “smile”? “Wearing a mask limits the cues available to us for facial mimicry, making it harder to read and properly react to other people’s expressions and, therefore, emotions,” says Annika. The good news is that mirror-neurons are not just triggered by the mouth, but the eyes too. It might be time to practise your “smize” (smiling with the eyes) and finally master eye contact, which can help you read another’s expression and create a connection even when you can’t see their mouth.

Note the body language of the person you’re interacting with, too, says Annika. “What does it say about what they are trying to convey? A simple gesture such as a wave can be used to accompany smiling eyes — so even if a smile is hidden behind a mask, your happiness can still be visible to others.”

Choosing joy

Although research has found that genuine Duchenne smiles have the strongest “feel-good” impact, even non-Duchenne, or “forced” smiles, can have a positive effect. Try adding a smile into every day. Smile behind your mask, watch a funny movie, download a comedy podcast, or call that friend who always knows how to make you laugh. Make time to intentionally smile, because like muscle memory, you can retrain your brain to release those happy hormones.

“Even if people don’t find a natural disposition to smiling, it’s about choosing to smile,” says Ros Ben-Moshe. “No matter what is going on in your day, you can change your physiology. It is one of the simplest things you can do to create positive wellbeing. The more you practise it, the more you will find that within a matter of weeks you will be smiling more often.”

Hiding your smile from others doesn’t mean you have to mask your joy; you just need to find creative ways to express it. Ros suggests finding other things that symbolise a connection for masked-up moments. That might be a wave, a thumbs up, or placing a hand on your chest to express warmth or sincerity. Also try varying the intonation of your voice; a higher-pitched greeting usually expresses excitement or happiness. “Vocal cues take greater precedence while wearing masks,” says Ros. “For example, saying out loud — rather than it being assumed — ‘It’s lovely seeing you’, or [laughing as you say] ‘I am smiling under here!’”

Spending time alone or in lockdown is no excuse not to smile. In a time when we are becoming increasingly isolated, seeing or expressing a smile can be really powerful, even if it’s to yourself or over video-chat. “Smile to yourself in the mirror, smile at your pet. Do a guided smiling meditation at home,” suggests Ros. “If you’re in a period of lockdown, Facetime someone so you can see their face and share a smile, rather than just having a phone conversation.”

Even on a stressful day, it’s worth remember that a smile can be the source of your joy.

Tips for “smiling” behind a mask

  • Pay attention to people’s body language and what they are trying to convey.
  • Exaggerate your hand gestures to express happiness; give a thumbs up, a friendly wave or offer an ‘elbow bump’.
  • Vocalise joy: a higher-pitched voice tends to express excitement.
  • Don’t shy away from eye contact — this can deepen connections and help you read someone’s emotions even while their face is masked.
  • Practise your “smize” (smiling with eyes) in the mirror with your mask on, you’ll be able to see the way your eyes light up when you’re smiling.