Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Smiling helps to relieve stress

A person smiling is mostly considered to be a good thing. While the gesture is not universally positive in the animal kingdom, it is definitely something that most of us human beings appreciate. A smile shows pleasure or joy, and can be quite 'contagious'. It is sometimes said that smiling makes you live longer. While that seems unlikely, scientists did recently show that a smile helps to relieve stress, indicating there may be real health benefits after all.

An experiment set up with 169 participants focused on assessing the differences between a neutral facial expression, a 'forced' smile and genuine smiles. First, the scientists set up a training session, instructing a group to hold a neutral facial expression, a 'standard' smile or a Duchenne smile. The latter is often referred to as a genuine smile, because it not only involves the muscles of the mouth, but also eye muscles. The scientists used chopsticks in order to force a certain facial expression, because most of the participants were not allowed to know the study was about the effect of smiling, and could therefore not be instructed to do so.

During the experimental phase, the scientists gave the participants a series of stressful tasks, while they had to keep the chopsticks in their mouth. While that probably resulted in a peculiar appearance, it made sure that the participants were not forcing a smile, but instead were unaware of their facial expression. To make it a bit more complex, some of the participants were actually instructed to smile, in order to assess the differences between simple 'facial' smiles and instructed smiles. During the tasks, the scientists measured heart rate and self-reported stress levels, and compared the scores between the three groups.

Groups instructed to smile or those having 'genuine' (instructed) smiles had a lower stress level than the group with the neutral facial expression. When comparing the two smile groups, the scientists found that those who were instructed to smile had further reduced stress levels, compared to those that only had the associated facial expression. Taken together, the study shows that smiles, either genuine or simply instructed can reduce stress levels. The fact that these smiles have their effect regardless of the person being happy is especially interesting.
A Duchenne smile: both muscles from the mouth and eye are involved.

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