Mildred Lisette Norman, a spiritual teacher in the 1950s, otherwise known as the Peace Pilgrim, recited the following:
“Life is like a mirror. Smile at it and it smiles back at you.”
While Norman was wise beyond her years, she may not have known that this statement holds scientific backing on how the simple act of smiling can have powerful positive effects on our lives. Seventy years later, this statement continues to ring true, (maybe more now than ever before). As we face more challenges in the coming winter months, with dark nights drawing in and more lockdown limitations placed upon us, smiling may just be the secret ingredient to maintaining a happy and positive mindset.
So what is the science behind smiling? Can a subtle upturn to our lips really impact the way we feel? Let’s take a closer look.
1. What came first - the smile or the good mood?
Can you really improve your mood just by smiling? Turns out, smiling and happiness are intertwined in a rather simple “chicken and egg” scenario. When you feel happy, your brain releases a group of feel-good neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These “happy hormones” transmit a neuronal signal to your facial muscles to trigger a smile. Now here’s where the magic starts. When your facial muscles contract into a smile, a signal is fired back to the brain stimulating the reward system, and beginning a feedback loop of happiness. To put it simply, when you feel happy, you smile, and when you smile, you feel happy.
So what does this mean for altering your mood? You have a happiness controller in your hands! You may call it “faking it ‘till you make it,” but the first step to turning a bad mood around is simply smiling. By understanding this positive feedback loop, you can cheat the system and alter your brain’s emotional processing network to release feelings of happiness. Your happy hormones are small messengers that play big roles in your wellbeing. Serotonin acts as your body’s natural antidepressant, dopamine mediates pleasure, and endorphins alleviate pain. When these chemicals circulate through your system, they help lower stress and anxiety by regulating heart rate and blood pressure, and allowing your nervous system to go from a mode of fight and flight to a state of rest and digest.
2. The important link between smiling and the immune system (and the key role of nasal breathing).
Aside from promoting a relaxed state of mind, there are intricate benefits of nasal breathing. Your nose is designed for breathing, while your mouth is designed for eating, talking (and smiling!). You may have heard that you should breathe through your nose whenever you can. But why? While the mouth is a massive portal for infection and bacteria, the nasal cavity is specialized to defend the respiratory system. Your nose filters the air you breathe in, and creates the correct amount of resistance to effectively activate your diaphragm. You may recall learning about the diaphragm in our last article on breathing. When your diaphragm is pumping properly, a bacteria-fighting substance called lymph is moved through your body which improves immune function.
So what does smiling have to do with nasal breathing? When you smile, you naturally teach the nostrils to flare, which helps to open up the nasal passages. When the nasal passages are open, your body’s filtration system kicks into high gear to defend the respiratory system, and your diaphragm is activated to full capacity. Let’s try it, shall we? Allow yourself to pause, sit back, and smile. Now, bring your focus to your breath. Deeply inhale and exhale for a few rounds of breath (all the while keeping the smile!). Not only are you supporting your immune system, but you may feel a subtle rush of happiness in just a few moments of “breath-work.”
3. How to smile with your eyes.
If there is anything this year has taught us, it’s the importance of social connection. We are naturally social beings who feel fulfilled when we bond with others. Our new reality of masks and social distancing has added a dense layer of difficulty to this need of socialization. While it was previously easy and natural to smile at a passing stranger, it now has become easy to hide our emotions behind our masks and ignore one another. As COVID-19 has sent us into a mode of isolation, it is more important than ever to combat this mindset and make a conscious effort to smile through the masks!
It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. And how lucky are we that our eyes are the part of our face that remains exposed? So try this: smile at each person you pass today. Smile behind your mask and smile with your eyes and see if you can notice a change in their eyes as you do. For science also tells us that smiling is contagious! Seeing another person smile stimulates a mirror response to trigger a smile by repressing facial muscle control. So mask or no mask, you have the power to spread joy to yourself and others through a smile.
As yoga teachers and Yoga Sports Coaches™️ we play an important role each time we show up to the mat. We get the opportunity to weave in wisdom through our teachings and signpost the benefits and efficacy of yoga through science. During this unprecedented time, it is more important than ever to go back to the basics, and focus on foundational principles of health, happiness and wellbeing.
We often can’t control the events that encompass our external world (2020 has made this clear), so we must focus on what we can control to make a positive impact in our daily lives and the lives of others. We have the power to shine sunlight to our internal worlds, and spread this light to the internal worlds of others through the simple act of smiling. This is us at the Institute of Yoga Sports Science® sharing a smile with you. Please pass it on and stay well :) 😊
Hayley Winter is the founder of the Institute of Yoga Sports Science® (YSS) and one of the early pioneers of online yoga education, teaching yoga online for over a decade. Learn more and enjoy:
If you would like to hear Hayley read the audio version of this blog, please download here...
If you just want to hear Hayley teach you the simple 'Smiling Nasal Breathing Technique', please download here...