Why do we smile? What beneficial effects does smiling have on us and those around us? How can smiling be good for well-being? If smiling is good for our health, what specific benefits do we get from laughing? Are people with a good sense of humour really healthier than most? How can you smile and laugh your way to wellness?
Let’s try an experiment. Smile. Yes, go on, if it is safe to do so, smile. Now, make the smile even bigger. Think of something that brings you happiness; a happy memory, one of your great achievements. Picture what was going on at the time. In your mind, hear the sounds that were present. Feel in your stomach the sense of joy you had.
Adopt the body language and posture you had at the time. Think how pleasant it is to have that memory.
How are you feeling now? Better? Happy? At least more content? Probably. In over 35 years of using this little exercise with coaching and therapy clients, almost everyone feels better. Why?
There is a closed feedback loop between our bodies and minds. When our body adopts any body language, our mind and emotions follow. And vice versa. When our mind and emotions take on any given state, our body follows.
How much does our body follow our mind? Have you ever been really frightened, terrified? Our bodies change dramatically. Heart rate rises quickly. Blood pressure rises. Blood flows out of the non-essential parts of the body, and into the organs essential for dealing with the threat. Breathing rate escalates. All of this is because you perceived a threat, real or imagined. If you have not experienced such in real-life then perhaps you have while watching a horror movie.
Our minds can change our bodies and our bodies can change our minds, both very quickly.
Why do we smile? Perhaps most people would say: “To express joy.” Since the mind and the body are connected, some people may say, “To induce joy.” That is, we can smile for the purpose of making ourselves feel better, and we feel better for very good chemical reasons.
Whether we smile to express joy or to induce it, our bodies are quickly bathed in beneficial chemicals, happy hormones. They include serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin.
At the other end of the happiness spectrum, stress hormones are released if we face a threatening situation. They equip us for fight or flight. However, when those hormones are present long-term, they do serious damage. They include: corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), cortisol, catecholamines and thyroid hormone.
CRH, (previously known as corticotropin-releasing factor) is the central regulator of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system. It coordinates and prepares the body for threat and stress.
The great news for smilers and laughers is that the more they smile and laugh the lower their levels of the stress hormones.
Choosing how we respond to the world, in order to keep our happy hormones high and our stress hormones low, is one of the long-term predictors of wellness.
For most people, it is easy to tell how much smiling and laughing they have done in their lives. When you look at someone’s face, you can get a good indication of how happy they are. How? By looking at the depth of their laugh lines. People who have spent years laughing and smiling have wonderfully deep laugh lines.
Some people don’t like their laugh lines; they think such a feature represents ageing. Happy people take a different view. Laugh lines are a reminder to themselves and everyone they meet, that they have chosen to be happy, or at least to smile and laugh as often as they can.
Can there be any more joyful sight than seeing friends smile as they recognise each other, with laugh lines on full display? Is there any happier sound that a group of friends laughing together?
As children we smile on average 400 times, and laugh 300 times a day.
Happy adults smile around 50 times a day, and typical “How are you? Not bad” adults smile only 20 times a day. A typical adult engages in subdued or low level laughing around 17 times a day, and many of those are “social lubrication laughs” for the purposes of people pleasing, and do not come from genuine joy. The same applies to their forced smiles.
There is some dispute about the precise figures. Some researchers claim that children laugh “only” 150 times a day, whereas adults exhaust their laughter reserves at a massive average of six per day. No serious researcher challenges the massive difference in the frequency of laughing and smiling between adults and children. Neither does any credible scientist dispute the health benefits of smiling and laughing.
In healthcare environments, study after study finds that smiling happy hospitals have shorter patient stays, less operating time, and better recovery and cure rates. Smiling and laughing are great for our health, even when facing serious health challenges.
Smiling, laughing, happy people, have fewer illnesses. There seems to be a preventative effect. Even when they do become ill, smiling, happy people have a faster and better recovery rate.
That fits other findings. Optimistic people have fewer visits to their physician, live around 15% longer and achieve enormously more than pessimists. Wise people know that they will be successful when they are happy. Others hope for happiness when they are successful. In my experience, one of the prerequisites of success is happiness – and specifically, the ability to have maximum understanding and control of emotions.
We all know people who claim to be happy or content, but they have yet to let their faces know. It is true that some people are content without smiling and laughing; they don’t feel the need to let their face or the world know that they are happy.
Alas, they miss out on even more happiness. Why? For most people, when they are with visibly happy others, it elevates their mood. That in turn, raises the mood of others, which creates a self-sustaining circle of happiness. Everybody benefits.
Many research studies have demonstrated that happy environments are healthy environments. Happy people are healthier, and their presence makes other people happier and healthier.
Becoming a master of one’s own emotions can start with choosing to smile, and choosing to be happy.
As Mark Twain famously said: “Some people bring happiness wherever they go. Others bring happiness whenever they go.”
What that means is if you smile and laugh your way to wellness, you will benefit the health of those you spend most time with.
The benefits list is long
Happiness-induced wellness reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease, and stroke, possibly because smiling and laughing lowers blood pressure. It helps you to sleep better, which has a protective effect against all sorts of illnesses. Happy, smiling people don’t get as distressed as others, and as such have less need to comfort eat. That makes it easier to maintain a healthy body weight. All of the above makes it easier to exercise, which, in turn, keeps stress levels down.
Choosing to smile, to laugh regularly, choosing to be happy, is one of the most effective ways to wellness.
If you make that choice, you will live a better quality of life, a life with better relationships, a healthier life, a longer life, and a more successful life.
Will you happily make that choice?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.
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