The Power of Smiling: Worth Its Weight in Chocolate

By: Emily Chase  |  May 12, 2014

white-teeth-2Just how powerful is a smile? Can smiling have life-altering effects? Are there any biochemical or neurological pathways that are enhanced with frequent smiling? The question of the day is this: Does smiling really make one happier?

Psychologists at the University of Cardiff in Wales sought to answer this question by injecting Botox into female subjects to stop them from frowning. The Botox recipients reported feeling happier and less anxious than the control group; yet they did not report feeling any more attractive; which suggests that the emotional effects were not driven by a psychological boost that could come from the treatment’s cosmetic nature. According to researcher Michael Lewis, a co-author of the study, “It would appear that the way we feel emotions isn’t just restricted to our brain—there are parts of our bodies that help and reinforce the feelings we’re having. It’s like a feedback loop.”

In another study performed in Germany at the Echnische Universitat, scientists injected Botox into people to stop them from smiling and measured the brain activity before and after they injected the Botox. They found that that the smiling activated the brain’s region of emotional processing, the amygdala and hypothal­amus, which suggests that smiling does in fact make people happier.

Does the type of smile change a person’s degree of happiness? Professors at UC Berkeley measured the yearbook smiles of students who had graduated, and then analyzed their well-being over the course of their lives. The professors found that overall people with wider smiles had higher scores on standardized tests of well-being and happiness.

On the flip side, it appears that frowning can also decrease a person’s level of happiness. A study published in May 2008 in the Journal of Pain noted that people who frown during an unpleasant procedure report feeling more pain than those who do not. Researchers applied heat to the forearms of twenty-nine participants, who were asked to either make unhappy, neutral or relaxed faces during the procedure. The people who made unhappy facial expressions reported being in more pain than those who did not.

Research indicates a definite correlation between smiling and feelings of happiness, but does the same apply if someone smiles at you? Does that cause the smile’s recipient to feel happier? An expert on the subject, Ron Gutman, publicized an interesting finding conducted by Hewlett Packard. The researchers tested 109 people by showing them photos of various people smiling, giving them chocolate and money, and then measuring their brain activity and heart rate to interpret responses to the stimuli. They found that the smile of a friend was equal to 200 chocolate bars, the smile of a loved one was equal to 600 chocolate bars, and the smile of a child was equal to the extraordinary amount of 2,000 chocolate bars.

Psychologist Dr. David Lewis says, “The powerful emotions triggered when someone important in our lives smiles at us, and we smile back, changes our brain chemistry.” But it can’t be a fake smile; it has to be a real genuine smile. Dr. Lewis continues, “…the fake smiles of royalty and politicians are detected and have the opposite effect, giving the person an untrustworthy and hypocritical image.”

Furthermore, researchers Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman told their subjects to use chopsticks to form smiles on their faces. They were told either to form forced smiles, to form full smiles that include the eyes, or to remain expressionless. They found that those who forced smiles were less stressed then the ones who remained expressionless, but those that smiled fully were even less stress then those who forced smiles. According to this study, it seems that smiling can decrease stress. This is a good point of advice; smile more, stress less. After all, a smile is worth its weight in chocolate.