Smile! It's good for you. A study conducted by clinical psychologists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman showed the surprisingly positive effects of turning that frown upside down. Turns out, smiling can be good for your heart in stressful situations.
To further explore how smiling can impact the body, they decided to focus on examining participants' heartbeats, since stress and heart health are related. They split 170 participants into two groups: one knew what the study was about, while the other proceeded blindly. To test them in stressful situations, both groups were required to use their left hand to quickly trace a star reflected in a mirror, followed by placing their hand in a bucket of ice water for one minute. While completing these tasks, each person had to hold chopsticks in their mouth.
"The chopsticks were essential for our research because they let us make people smile without their being aware that they were smiling," Kraft shared in A Book That Takes Its Time. Participants' heart rate and blood pressure were recorded throughout the trial and briefly afterwards to show the importance of recovery. Kraft continued to explain that it's not accelerated heart rate that's necessarily bad for your heart, it's the inability to quickly bring it back down. "People who take longer to recover run the risk of various health problems," Kraft said.
They first differentiated genuine smiles (activate the muscles around your eyes) versus fake smiles (activate only your cheek muscles). Interestingly, those who actually smiled during the trial recovered the fastest, followed by people with fake smiles. Those with neutral smiles had the slowest recovery.
"What we found most interesting was that it made no difference whether you knew you were smiling or not — the result was the same," Kraft said. "Fake or real, a smile activates facial muscle groups and sends a positive message to the brain, which in turn allows the body to respond positively."
The study's findings also showed that in addition to a positive effect on heart rate, participants who smiled were also able to handle the stressful tasks more positively than those with neutral expressions.
So the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, try to grin and bear it because it'll only help!