As I was driving home the other day, I passed an oncoming car and noticed that the driver, an elderly man with very large ears, was grinning like he’d won the lottery. He was driving alone so unless he had a Bluetooth, and someone had just told him a fabulous joke, he was just a happy, smiley man (maybe he had just won the lottery!). I spent the next few days paying more attention to the facial expressions on driver’s faces, especially in single-occupancy vehicles (when safe to do so, like at a stop light). The vast majority of the drivers have a serious, stressed, slightly worried and unhappy expression. Is this because driving requires so much concentration? Maybe. But more likely, it’s because many of us use driving time to perseverate on our To Do lists, on current and upcoming events that are causing us stress, on deadlines, on what we’re going to make for supper, on why we’re always late for everything. How many of us use driving time (or any other time for that matter) to appreciate the good things in our life and allow ourselves a moment to feel happy and to smile?
But I did notice a few more drivers with smiles. I started smiling more when I drive. Actually, I started smiling more all the time. I make a point of smiling. I make a point of laughing. And the more I smile and laugh, the more I want to. Just the act of smiling and laughing makes me feel happier, less stressed, more able to cope. And I remembered a factoid that I learned way (way way) back in high school: smiling releases endorphins.
This got me researching the neurophysiological effects of smiling and laughing. As is typically the case with research at the intersection of neurobiology and psychology, there is far more left unknown than known. But there are some intriguing facts. Smiling and laughing activates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which produces endorphins. The name endorphin is derived from the words “endogenous morphine” (endogenous means natural to the body, and I take it that you’ve heard of morphine). Endorphins are opioid peptides (small proteins) that function as neurotransmitters. They are produced in response to exercise, excitement, love and orgasm and are associated with a feeling of happiness and euphoria. They suppress pain through mechanisms similar to analgesia. And even more importantly, endorphins increase the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with many functions in the brain, including reward-based learning, inhibiting negative emotions, boosting mood, improving sleep quality, and increasing motivation, cognition, and memory.
Smiling and laughing also activates parts of the limbic system of the brain (the amygdala and the hippocampus). The limbic system is a primitive part of the brain that is involved in emotions and helps us with basic functions necessary for survival. When the limbic system is activated, serotonin levels are activated, contributing to feelings of well-being and happiness. There are further effects on the autonomic nervous system, which balances your blood pressure levels, heartbeat, and respiration. Smiling and laughing also lower blood sugar levels after a meal, stimulate your immune system, reduce muscle tension, and very importantly reduce cortisol, growth hormone, and catecholamines.
As you would probably expect, laughing and smiling work through the same pathways, but laughing is more powerful than smiling. What might surprise you is that even a fake smile and a fake laugh can have a positive effect on your mood, your stress level, your immune system, your vascular health, your digestive health and even your blood sugar regulation (although clearly, the real thing is even better!). I think this is the most exciting piece of information of all. Even if you don’t feel like smiling, forcing your facial muscles to adopt a smile causes the same (albeit at a lower level) body and brain chemistry changes as a real smile or laugh. And this means that forcing a smile will actually make you feel happier and reduce your stress levels!
I think this is a good argument to include smiling and laughing in your arsenal of stress management techniques. Take a minute to smile or laugh a few times a day every day. It’s even better if you can take that minute to reflect on something joyful, because then it will be a real smile and be even more effective at prolonging a feeling of happiness and reducing stress. And if you have a hard time remembering, you can do what I do, and make sure you smile at every stop light. Maybe someone will notice and your smile will be contagious!