Can’t get the checkbook to balance? Stubbed your toe so hard you see stars? You may feel like cursing or crying…but try forcing a smile instead. You’ll be surprised at how this can help both your mood and your health when you’re struggling with a stressful situation, whether the challenge is psychological or physical. And don’t worry if that smile isn’t sincere—because even a fake one will do the trick, a recent study reveals.

To understand the new research, first envision these two different types of smiles: A “standard” smile involves only the muscles of the mouth…in contrast, a genuine smile involves the mouth muscles as well the muscles around the eyes. (It makes sense—think about how much a pair of twinkly, crinkly eyes contributes to a truly happy facial expression.)

For the study, all participants had to complete two stressful tasks. First they were instructed to spend two minutes tracing a star with their nondominant hands (the left hand for most people) while being able to see only a reflection of the star and hand in a mirror. For the second task, they had to keep their hands submerged in ice water for one minute.

What differed were the facial expressions that participants were instructed to maintain throughout the tasks. One group maintained a neutral expression…another group kept a standard mouth-only smile on their faces…a third group did its best to have a genuine crinkly-eyed smile. To ensure that the assigned expression was produced, each participant was trained to hold chopsticks in his or her mouth in a specific way designed to engage the appropriate facial muscles. In addition, in the standard smile and genuine smile groups, half of the participants were specifically asked to smile during the tasks, while the other half were given no particular instructions about smiling.

Before, during and for some minutes after each task, researchers recorded each participant’s heart rate. Reason: The heart speeds up in times of stress…and the rate at which it slows back down and recovers is linked to future heart-health outcomes. Participants also were questioned about their perceived levels of stress.

Results: Compared with the nonsmilers, the groups that smiled during the stressful tasks—whether or not they were consciously aware of and trying to grin—had faster heart-rate recovery times after the tasks and lower self-reported levels of stress. Those with genuine smiles that reached the eyes had a slight advantage, but even those who smiled only with their mouths were less stressed than those who didn’t smile at all.

Explanation? Researchers hypothesize that activating the facial muscles involved in smiling can stimulate certain brain regions associated with positive emotions, thus triggering those emotions and reducing the intensity of the body’s stress response.

How this info can help you: When faced with some stressful physical or psychological unpleasantness such as getting an injection, being stuck in traffic or struggling with a tough task at work, remember that “grin and bear it” is good advice—especially the grin part—benefiting both your mood and your heart.

Related Articles