Is smiling good for you and the observer?

A girl smiling or laughing.

Image via Wikipedia

The title of this piece is not meant to convey some quantum physics observation phenomena – rather just the simple giving and receiving of smiles.

Is smiling one of the easiest brain hacks possible – that not only brings happiness to you but also anybody viewing the smile?

Is smiling good for you ?

We have all heard the general idea that smiling can lift your own mood, and I thought I had read about the release of dopamine or serotonin but it was a bit hard to find the actual scientific papers to support this.

However, it is widely reported on many websites regarding how serotonin (good for your mood) is increased with smiling – they just didn’t provide the scientific citation(s). So I am not sure if this is an example of a internet-myth or a difficult to hunt down fact. I will continue to try to hunt down this potential-factoid.

But at the individual subjective level smiling appears to make us feel good (potential chicken or egg problem). Again I remember reading about a study were people are instructed to change specific muscle in their faces until they have formed a smile and/or imitate a smiling face and either of these tasks bring about an improvement in mood (just need to find these).

We have all been told that it takes less muscle to smile rather than frown – but try telling a sad person to smile, look happy, and they would highly disagree with the concept it take less muscle, less energy to smile.

There is actually a book about the science of smiles, which I was somewhat surprised to find out even though I shouldn’t have been.

Beautiful faces are rewarding

I found it interesting that it was easier to hunt down research on how viewing beautiful faces is rewarding compared to is smiling self rewarding. It could be that the smile self-rewarding research is older.

Previously, I covered research that found viewing a favored celebrity is good for your brain because it increased circulating natural killer cells (better immune system) and elevated mood. Additionally, several brain regions lit up when they did brain scans comparing when subjects looked at a favorite celebrity they found attractive versus newscasters they did not find particularly attractive. An earlier 2001 Neuron paper (Aharon et al., 2001) found that attractive faces were rewarding, as fMRI scans indicated reward centers had greater activation when viewing beautiful faces, in particular the nucleus accumbens.

But what about a smile ?

Now we might not all be considered beautiful by the world, but do we all have something that we can share and bring about a positive emotional experience to them? Yes – a smile.

O’Doherty et. al., in 2003 found that an attractive face lit up the viewers medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is known to be involved in stimulus reward. Smiling faces further activated this region. Hence the reward of an attractive face is modulated by that face smiling. No great surprise – if any of us see what we judge as a beautiful face it gives us pleasure, and if the person smiles at you – well ding ding ding goes the brain with delight. (they did not specifically test an average looking smiling face).

Even the most hardened individual is usually melted by a babies smile. A 2008 paper (covered by sciencedaily) found that mothers viewing their babies smiling faces had many areas of the brain lit up that were associated with dopamine (a prominent reward neurotransmitter). Now of course mothers reacted at a higher level to their own babies face. But what the authors wanted to point out was:

“These are areas that have been activated in other experiments associated with drug addiction,” said Strathearn. “It may be that seeing your own baby’s smiling face is like a ‘natural high’

These results would come no surprise to anybody that has seen a smiling baby face. While in the above paper they tested the mother I would guess they would get similar (though not quite as strong) results if they tested anybody they pulled off the street to a baby smiling face compared to either a smiling human face, or a non-smiling babies face, or a clock’s face.

Does smiling make you more memorable ?

Tsukiura and Cabiza (2008) reported that smiling faces were easier to remember. Subjects were able to match name-faces in a memory tests with higher accuracy and more quickly compared to neutral faces. The researchers also found a greater connectivity between the orbitofrontal cortex (see previously mentioned smile paper) and the hippocampus (involved in memory) during successful encoding and retrieval for smiling faces. Where it gets interesting is that if just the name was used as a retrieval clue the same enhanced connectivity was found for smiling faces, suggesting that the imagery of that smiling face (the association) produced the ‘good’ effect.

This suggest that when you meet a new person by smiling they will not only remember your name better but have a better brain connection between one of the reward areas of the brain and the memory encoding/retrieval area.

Take home

So if you have a choice why not smile? It not only brings pleasure to you (subjectively) but also gives pleasure to its recipient and you will be more memorable (and who doesn’t want to be more memorable).

Then why not if you are out in the world; at work, at school, running, biking, sitting at your local coffee shop (unless you are avoiding coffee shops to save some money) share a smile. Do you and the rest of the world some good – by simply smiling.

Goal of the day: Share a smile with a stranger today.

3 comments for “Is smiling good for you and the observer?

  1. CC
    September 18, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    I just wonder how smiling came about in evolution. Humans the only species that smile? How about other primates? Usually the baring of teeth suggests aggression.
    Early human(-like) finds pleasure in aggression and baring of teeth to each other, then baring teeth developed into smiles?
    Or development of smiles totally separate…?

  2. Ward
    September 19, 2008 at 11:07 am


    I believe other primates smile (check out:
    I haven’t read much about the evolution of smile, probably like most people just have seen various nature shows on TV. I think primates uses various facial expression to convey information – similar to humans. (you will at least like the pictures of the link I listed above).