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March 2019

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Can smiling improve your health?

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Can smiling improve your health?

Post by AlleyRose on Mon Nov 10, 2014 9:51 pm

Yes, aim to have lots of genuine smiles each day.

Our expert: Dr Barbara Fredrickson and Dr Suzy Green
Published 08/06/2010

Improving your diet takes some planning. Getting fitter might involve some sweat. Smiling, however, can be spontaneous and in the right circumstances, doesn't hurt at all.
But could smiling regularly leave you with more than just a warm inner glow? Could it actually make you healthier?
American positive emotions expert Professor Barbara Fredrickson thinks it could. So long as your smile is genuine rather than faked.
But it's not so much the smiles themselves that have the health-boosting effect – rather the emotions your smiles reflect.
Research has shown genuine smiles – also known as Duchenne smiles – can only be brought on by genuine positive emotions. So you cannot force a genuine smile and it involves different facial muscles to fake smiles.
"Feigned smiles often cover up a lot of negative emotions", Fredrickson says.
"A lot of people say 'fake it till you make it'. In other words 'put on a fake smile' [to make yourself feel better]. But while it's fake, it's not doing you any good."
In fact, one famous study linked insincere smiles (as determined by detailed coding of the facial muscles used) with an increased risk of a person having events where their heart functions abnormally. (Known as 'transient myocardial ischemia events', these are often fleeting and painless, but they nonetheless predict serious and sometimes fatal outcomes.)
"You can use a fake smile, the type people can control, to facilitate a genuine smile. But while it's fake, it's not doing you any good."

The mind/body link

If your smile is sincere though, it means you are experiencing positive emotions, Fredrickson says. And her team has produced some of the growing evidence that such emotions – which include joy, contentment and gratitude – boost our health and wellbeing.
"Positive emotions are mind and body events. You have an interpretation of your circumstances and that leads to a biochemical cascade [that affects aspects of your body's functioning]."
Research has shown increasing our positive emotions not only improves the way we learn and make decisions, but also our immunity, our cardiovascular health, and our emotional connection to others (which in turn boosts aspects of our physical health).
One study found people who had more positive emotions in daily life were less likely than others to catch a cold. And the link held true regardless of the person's level of negative emotions. (In other words, having positive emotions is better for your health than just being free of negative emotions.)
There is also good evidence those with high levels of positive emotions get out of hospital faster after a cardiac event such as a heart attack, Fredrickson says.

Be happy, be healthy

The good news is you can learn ways to increase the positive emotions you experience. And work by Fredrickson's own team has shown this can lead to positive changes in the rhythms in our hearts.
The more positive emotions you experience, the more likely you are to have healthy heart rhythms that make you more adaptive to different situations – in both a psychological and physical sense.
So how much do you need to smile? It's hard to say exactly, Fredrickson says.
"Well one smile isn't going to do it. It's more like we need to increase our daily diet of genuine smiles. My research suggests the tipping point is three to one positive to negative emotions. That is, we need three positive emotions to lift us up for every one negative emotion that wears us down. So we need three or more smiles to each grimace, think of it that way."
Australian positive psychology expert, Dr Suzy Green, says a number of studies have tracked people displaying genuine smiles in group photographs over time and compared them to others in the photos who did not show such smiles. The genuine smiles were linked to positive outcomes like higher personal wellbeing 30 years later, or even living longer. And these effects were seen even after controlling for other factors that might influence the results.
Smiling is also a part of "a very well validated" treatment known as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), used to treat people with serious psychological conditions, says Green. Those undergoing DBT are told to "half-smile upon waking" at the start of each day and this is thought to help them learn to tolerate the distress brought on by their intense emotions.
While more research is needed, Green thinks we should all feel free to smile more straight away: "Can it do anyone harm to smile a bit more? I don't think so. I don't think there's enough smiling in the world really."
Professor Barbara Fredrickson is principal investigator at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, University of North Carolina, USA and was a speaker at this year's Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney. Dr Suzy Green is a psychologist and adjunct lecturer at the University of Sydney. They spoke to Cathy Johnson.

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