You’ve heard it a thousand times: laughter is the best medicine. And, remarkably, there’s truth in that old adage. But how, exactly, does the act of smiling or laughing actually improve your overall health?
Here’s what the experts have to say:
The biology of smiling
Scientists have thoroughly studied the biological facts surrounding how and why we smile and laugh, and for good reason: we’re not the only animals on the planet who consistently display these particular behaviors — apes, dogs, rats, and dolphins all laugh — but we have developed an incredibly complex physical and emotional interplay that’s currently unmatched.
Nerves and muscles
First, let’s set the record straight: it does not actually take more muscles to frown than to smile. While genuine smiles can incorporate as few as five and as many as 53 separate muscles, the average human smile uses just 12. An average frown, however, uses 11.
Studies have mapped out exactly what happens physically when we smile:
- The neuronal signals for smiles usually start in the cortex of our brain.
- From there they travel to the deeper part, the brain stem -- which, in terms of evolution, also happens to be one of the oldest parts of our brain.
- From there, a nerve that's large enough to be visible to the naked eye, called the seventh cranial nerve, carries the signal in front of the ear to the more central part of the face, where it reaches the smile muscle. The smile muscle is attached from the mouth to the cheekbone.
- When this nerve fires, the muscle is activated, the corners of our mouth are pulled up, and we look happy.
- And if it is a genuine smile, one that signifies real enjoyment by its wearer, then a branch of the facial nerve also activates little muscles around the eyes, leading to wrinkling around the eyes in addition to a mouth smile.
Interestingly, these physiological effects have no real connection to the cause of the smile. The same events occur whether you smile involuntarily — in reaction to seeing someone you care about or hearing a funny story — or you simply force a smile onto your face.
A complex biochemical chain reaction
When you smile, much like when you exercise, your brain and nervous system release chemicals that have a wide range of positive effects on the mind and body:
- Serotonin - The “feel good” neurotransmitter, increasing the level of serotonin in the brain can boost your mood naturally and is associated with long-term feelings of happiness and contentment. This is the neurotransmitter most prescription anti-depressants act on, but there are no negative side effects to smiling.
- Dopamine - The “reward” neurotransmitter, dopamine actually controls a lot of different important functions in the nervous system and elsewhere in the body. In relation to smiles, however, it’s a hit of dopamine that produces instant feelings of joy and wellness that accompanies a genuine smile or laugh. It’s very addictive, but in a good way.
- Endorphins - Natural painkillers, endorphins in sufficient quantity can reduce or eliminate physical pain and induce a feeling of euphoria and well-being. For example, the “runner’s high” most long-distance runners experience is a result of endorphin release. Endorphins also interact with other body systems to produce physiological changes such as lower blood pressure and a reduction in potentially damaging stress hormones like cortisol.
Each of these chemicals, in turn, either increase or reduce the production of dozens of other chemicals throughout the body. As a result of this complex chain reaction, the following health benefits have all been tied to smiling and laughing:
- Increased oxygen in the blood (improves overall health and longevity)
- Relaxation of the muscles (reduces pain, including headaches, neck pain)
- Improved immune system (promotes protection from illness, improved wellness, longevity)
- Lower heart rate and blood pressure (reduces anxiety, improves overall health and longevity)
- Better sleep (improves mood, muscle recovery, mental health, and longevity)
- Reduce cellular rigidity (promotes healing, general wellness)
The social benefits of smiling
In addition to the numerous physical and emotional benefits smiling and laughing produce in the person smiling, there are a number of interesting social benefits as well.
For example, studies have proven that smiling makes you more attractive and approachable to others. It can exude confidence, poise, and authority in ways that make people want to be around you. And, if you’re a genuinely happy and positive person who smiles a lot, you’re going to be popular. That’s because smiling and laughter are literally contagious. So, the more you smile, the more others around you will smile. They will, in turn, experience all the positive feelings described above for themselves, and they’ll associate those positive feelings with you.
The practical results of this phenomenon include:
- More and better career opportunities
- Higher salary
- Improved job performance (both actual and perceived)
- Higher quality relationships (including romantic, friendships, and professional)
These and similar long-term results create a feedback loop that tends to make individuals who smile more often genuinely happier and more successful in life, leading to greater long-term contentment. Which, of course, only leads to more smiles.
So, there’s no doubt about the fact that smiling and laughing can have impressive positive impacts on your overall health and wellness. Make an effort to smile more, even if you need to “fake it till you make it” by forcing a smile onto your face while dealing with stress or difficult circumstances.
Taking good care of your health in other ways can only strengthen the impact of smiling and laughing, so be sure to incorporate more smiles into your overall wellness plan starting today.