By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Featured Columnist
One of the most irritating things I endured during my childhood is being forced to "make nice" and "smile" when in fact, I was anything but happy at the time. "Let's have a smile", my Mom would say, or, even worse, she would tickle me into a smile to get me out of a teenage bad mood. Despite my protestations, and to my further annoyance, the technique almost always worked and I found myself smiling and half-forgetting what I was grumpy about before.
Imagine my surprise when, lo and behold, I have discovered that Mom was right all along. There really is some good science behind her maddening methods.
Scientists from the University of Kansas undertook an experiment in 2015 to see if forced smiles actually reduce stress levels.
The study, led by Dr. Tara Kraft and Dr. Sarah Pressman, compared the stress levels that you experience when you have a genuine smile versus the stress levels when you are forced to smile.
A genuine smile is called a "Duchenne" smile. Guillame Duchenne was a French physiologist who lived in the mid 1800's. He analyzed all of the intricate facial movements that occur when we smile genuinely. The key, Duchenne wrote, are the "sweet emotions of the soul". These emotions trigger the "zygomatic major" muscles of your cheeks to pull the outer corners of your lips upward and the "orbicularis oculi" muscles surrounding your eye socket to pinch the corners of your eyes into the crows feet.
By the way, Duchenne was something of a mad scientist. To discover exactly which muscles produced a smile, he used electrical stimulators which were so painful to his human subjects that he ended up using the decapitated heads of criminals for his experiments.
Do Fake Smiles Really Reduce Stress?
Now, let's look at the experiment that proved that fake smiles work to reduce stress. A total of 169 students were recruited and trained to use chopsticks to produce a neutral face or a smile or simply to smile genuinely. The scientists then put the students though a series of stress-inducing tests. In one of the stress tests, for example, the students put their hands in ice cold water.
Afterwards, the scientists measured their heart rates, the number of times the heart beats per minute.
What they found was that the heart rates of the students who used a fake smile during the stress tests were markedly lower than the heart rates of the students who did not smile.
Genuine smiles work best of all. But even fake smiles work better than not smiling at all.
Looking at Smiling Faces Lowers Social Anxiety
And, if smiling yourself lowers your stress levels, it may also help to look at people with smiling faces. A 2013 study from scientists at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands found that people who are socially anxious tend to avoid looking at people with smiling faces.
In an experiment, the scientists proved that "high socially anxious people" can be trained to engage rather than avoid smiling faces, as they would naturally do. After the training, these socially anxious people felt a reduction in their sense of emotional vulnerability.
The bottom line is, both smiling yourself and looking at faces of smiling people will help you to reduce your stress levels. Even if you don't feel that into the exercise, simply going through the motions will lift your mood.