Backwards Smiling: The Physiology of Happy

Image courtesy of Rumpers.

Everyone smiles.  From industrialized nations to remote tribes, studies have shown that smiling is universal.  Even more stunning is that people from all over the world smile the same way.  Even blind children begin to smile without seeing others smile.  It’s ingrained in the very code that makes us human.

Although smiling comes in many forms, most are actually fake.  In fact, there is only one smile that is genuine. When the corners of the mouth go up, the eyes narrow slightly creating crow’s feet, and the upper half of the cheeks rise, you are experiencing the Duchenne Smile, named by Paul Ekman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco after Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, the French physiologist who first studied the muscle that surrounds the eye in 1862.

The Duchenne smile is the one true smile that is a direct result of feeling happy.  But, how do we FEEL happy?  When we receive or give a gift, or see our children smile and laugh, physiological changes take place.  Our hearts beat faster and the flow of blood increases. Skin temperature rises, which makes the skin slightly damper and our fingers tremble.  The experience of a compliment or gift is a trigger.  The trigger sets off changes in the body, which signal the brain to feel happy.

Although this may sound odd at first, try forcing yourself to feeling happy when your muscles are tense, your face is frowned and your brow furrowed.  The involuntary emotions cause our body reaction to signal our brain, which means that happiness arises as much from our body as it does from our thoughts.

The emotions associated with feeling happy are involuntarily controlled by our automatic nervous system.  This is why we cannot simply decide to be happy by influencing involuntary body function.  It is impossible for us to command our blood to flow faster.  We do, however, have the ability to bypass the automatic nervous system.  We have the ability to smile, even without a trigger.

Ekman’s work corroborated that if feelings can come from the body, then happiness can come from a genuine Duchenne smile.  Ekman trained his subjects to control the movement of the muscles that surround the eye to achieve the Duchenne smile.  The result was a signal of happiness without a trigger sent to the brain thereby proving that happiness doesn’t flow in just one direction, and smiling alone can make us happy.

I suggest that we take the work of Ekman to the next level.  If the bodily movement of smiling can make our brains experience feelings of happiness, then why not use the smile as a trigger for others.  What you put out into the world comes back to you.  The next time you are introduced to someone, just give your first name and watch what happens.  More likely than not, they will return the introduction with their first name.  Offer your first and last name, and you will receive the same.  Try it with a smile.  I’m sure you will find a smile in return.  This effect can influence your happiness and the feelings of everyone you come into contact with throughout your day.  By smiling more and passing it along, you truly put the Duchenne smile effect into action.

Tommy Galan is a guest blogger for PickTheBrain. He is the author of, a blog dedicated to designing happy lives through exciting goals and healthy lifestyle.  A few of his many adventures include performing on Broadway, earning a Juris Doctorate, finishing marathons, and traveling the world.  He lives in New York City with his wife and son.

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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