When It’s Good to Force a Smile

W.C. Fields once said, “start every day off with a smile and get it over with.” Smiling when you least feel like it isn’t only difficult it can be counter-productive to mood.

In a Michigan State University study* customer-service workers who fake smiled throughout the day were found to have a worsened mood and withdrew from work, affecting productivity. Brent Scott, assistant professor of management says, “smiling for the sake of smiling can lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal, and that’s bad for the organization.”

However, there may be situations when its good to force a smile and can actually be advantageous to stress recovery. Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas wondered whether the type of smile used had any health-related benefits. The idea stemmed from previous research that shows positive emotions and smiling during times of stress appears to have positive emotional effects. What they were interested in was whether the so-called standard smile was more or less effective than a genuine smile, which engages muscles right around the eyes and mouth.

A group of students were asked to hold chopsticks in their mouths in ways intended to mimic a neutral expression, standard or genuine smile. Chopsticks were used because they forced the necessary facial expression without the participant knowing what was happening. They then undertook a series of stress-inducing tasks (e.g. plunging hands into ice-cold water), while continuing to hold the chopsticks in place. Both heart rates and self-reported stress levels were tested during the stress tasks.

The results of the study revealed that those whose expressions were manipulated towards a genuine smile had lower heart rate levels when compared with neutral or standard smile expressions after recovering from the stress tasks. The study authors suggest that smiling during brief stressors helps to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether the person feels happy. Is this the proof we need that grinning and bearing it actually has some merit?

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