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Beat Stress With a Smile

Smiling helps your mood, and your heart

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Updated January 22, 2013

Beat Stress With a Smile

Smiling is good for you

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The next time you feel like gritting your teeth, you might try grinning instead. That’s because research suggests smiling is not just good for you psychologically, but physiologically too. Surprisingly, a smile can bring you health benefits even if you don’t start out feeling happy.

A team of psychologists from the University of Kansas set out to discover whether having your face in a smiling position could reduce stress. In their study, slated for publication in the journal Psychological Science, researchers Sarah Pressman and Tara Kraft wanted to test the old adage “grin and bear it”, to determine not what makes a person smile, but what a smile can do once it’s in place.

Subjects were given a couple of different tasks known to be stressful, like tracing the outline of a star with the non-dominant hand while watching in a mirror (phew!), and plunging a hand into a bowl of ice water for one minute.

Chopsticks and research: The subjects performed the tasks three different ways: not smiling, teeth held in a moderate smile, and with a mouth broadly smiling, all while holding a chopstick between their teeth as instructed by a researcher. The chopstick provided a way of standardizing the facial expressions, in order to compare them, and to help create a smile artificially. A broad, or so-called Duchenne smile -- named after the French neurologist who documented facial expressions back in the 1860s -- engages not just muscles around the mouth but around the eyes as well. Subjects creating the Duchenne broad smile were coached to engage those muscles too, though not asked explicitly to smile.

Stress levels were gauged two ways, by taking heart rate measurements and by asking the subjects how stressed they felt while performing the difficult tasks.

What they found: All of the subjects, regardless of facial expression, reported feeling about the same degree of stress during the tasks. What differed, however, was how quickly the different groups' heart rates returned to normal: the heart rates of the subjects with a neutral expression (no smile) took the longest to recover. Subjects' heart rates in the broad-smiling group recovered the most quickly, and those with a moderate or so-called standard smile were in-between, still experiencing better heart rate recovery than those with a neutral face.

The results support past studies that have shown subjects using pencils to manipulate their facial expressions found certain cartoons funnier when their faces were held in a smiling position, than when their expressions were neutral. Pressman and Kraft also cite past research that found similar areas of the brain appear to be activated, whether a smile is spontaneous (a result of good feelings), or displayed intentionally, without those emotions.

Fake it till you make it? Should you fake a happy demeanor, to feel less stress? It depends. Research published in 2007 in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology reveals that subjects in a customer service call center simulation who were told to be enthusiastic, and hide their frustration, were more exhausted and made more mistakes on the job. The authors cite the energy cost felt by workers trying to act happy on the surface, when they are not.

Despite this, the researchers write that focusing on positive thoughts, or reappraising a difficult situation can help improve feelings over time. Such “deeply acted” faking is tiring, they acknowledge, but can eventually result in a more positive outlook.

The key may lie in how long the stressful situation lasts, according to University of Kansas study co-author Sarah Pressman. “Smiling is not a cure-all for every type of stress, especially for long-term stressors” like dealing repeatedly with hostile customers or other difficult people, she tells me. But it may offer relief, “for brief, acute stressors, and only for short periods of time -- or as an antidote to a passing negative mood.”

So the next time you’re stuck in traffic, or the person ahead of you in the grocery line is taking too long, consider smiling. It may make you feel better, and bring your heart rate down, too.

Sources:

Goldberg, Lori Sideman and Grandey, Alicia A. "Display Rules Versus Display Autonomy: Emotion Regulation, Emotional Exhaustion, and Task Performance in a Call Center Simulation," Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 07/2007, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp. 301 - 318.

Tara L. Kraft and Sarah D. Pressman. “Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response.” For publication in Psychological Science, 2012. Also, personal correspondence with co-author Pressman.

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