So, What's in a Smile?

It turns out, quite a lot. Charles Darwin is best known for his Theory of Evolution in which he described how species adapt to their surroundings over time. Did you know that he also wrote another book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals?  In this book, he claims that all humans show emotion through similar behaviours - in other words that the expression of emotion is universal.

What We Know

We know that certain expressions of emotion are common to all of us, regardless of race, culture, or age, and we communicate these through subtle changes in our face, voice and body.  One of these universal facial expressions is of course a smile.


We all know that smiling is the natural response to happiness, but did you know that it also works the other way around?  According to many studies, smiling can actually create happiness and have the same effect on our levels of happiness as eating chocolate, or receiving a monetary prize. Ear to ear smiles, known as Duchenne smiles, were found to work best. 

When the smiling muscles in our face contract, it stimulates the reward system that increases our levels of happiness hormones - our endorphins. And we all love those!

Smiling, even when we don’t feel like it, also tricks our brains into believing that we are happy and it sets off a chain reaction, making us think of happier memories, which then boost our mood.

When it comes to smiling, children have a huge advantage over adults as they smile around 400 times a day on average, compared to 20 times a day for adults.  And according to a Swedish study, smiles are also catching - we want to smile when other people are smiling at us!


We all know the dangers of high levels of stress and the hormone that it creates - cortisol. Having sustained high levels of cortisol in the body can sometimes lead to serious health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, mental illness and obesity.  

Excessive stress can also cause an imbalance in the neurotransmitters in our brains - the chemical messengers between our nerve cells that affect our mood, behaviour and sleep.  When such an imbalance occurs, this can lead to impaired physical and mental functioning, low levels of energy and motivation, and problems sleeping - which can also then trigger other more serious conditions.  

​S​tudies have suggested however that smiling can help!  Psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman carried out experiments to find the link between reducing stress and smiling. By asking participants to smile when completing mundane tasks, they found that it lowered heart rates and stress levels compared with those who adopted a neutral expression. 

When you smile it reduces levels of cortisol, can help to stabilize your mood during daily stressful activities, and can calm your nervous system.  Enabling you then to perform at your best.


Research shows that smiling also instantly makes us appear more reliable, relaxed, sincere and attractive to others.  

The Face Research Laboratory in Scotland conducted a study whereby they asked a group of people to view images of people and rate their attractiveness. The study found that people who smiled more were rated as more attractive than those who avoided eye contact and didn’t smile at all.

Useful in a social context of course, but could it also help you at work to appear more reliable, relaxed and sincere?  Smiling can be great for building effective working relationships, and for creating a great first impression.

In conclusion, not only does smiling reward our brain’s feel-good system, it also makes us appear more reliable & attractive and lowers stress levels.  

So when you feel your stress levels rising, find yourself facing the January blues, or want to make a good first impression, it may be a good idea to simply put a smile on your face.  And give the gift of a smile to someone else too!

Suggested Activity

Why not try it straight away?  Take a moment now at your desk, or as you walk to a meeting, or in the toilets, and simply smile for 30 seconds continuously...  and see what happens.