The Power of Smiling


During the year of my post-doc at Lehigh University, I often felt overwhelmed by everything I needed to do. Whether it was doing research,

weekly individual counseling, weekly group therapy, supervision, program development, or studying for the EPPP (national licensing exam for clinical psychologists), it’s safe to say I was a little stressed. Although I felt like drowning every once in a while, I had the best professional support any resident could ask for. On the day that I took my licensing exam, a supervisor of mine told me one simple piece of advice. I remember it vividly. He said: “When you’re on your way to the exam, be sure to smile. Even if it’s just a half smile but be sure to smile. And when you sit down to take the test, do it again”. That was it. He knew that I had studied like crazy and that I was prepared. At that point, the underlying message to this advice was that the only thing that could stand in my way was me. I couldn’t afford to psych myself out. I couldn’t afford to be negative. I couldn’t afford to lack the confidence I needed to complete this huge milestone in my career. So I took his advice multiple times on the way to that little Sylvan Learning center in Allentown, PA and I did it again right before I clicked start on the exam in my little cubicle. Each time I smiled, I remember feeling more positive. More confident. In the end, all of that studying paid off and I truly believe the smiling allowed me to step out of my own way.

Smiling is a powerful thing! It makes us and those who see us doing it feel more positive. Every studied culture has been found to associate smiling with more enjoyment, happiness, and satisfaction. Furthermore, there is no other facial expression that shares the same meaning across cultures. Having this knowledge can definitely work in our favor. Keeping a positive outlook and enjoying ourselves can always play a huge role when it comes to enhancing our performance. Therefore, it would make sense to use smiling as a strategy to either maintain positivity or as a reaction when we notice we’re getting down on ourselves.

Smiling can be misleading though. If we think about it, we probably all know at least one person who smiles when they’re uncomfortable or maybe they’ll even laugh in really inappropriate situations. Research shows that there is a clear difference between smiles that cause a flood of positivity and smiles that don’t. So if I’m going to use smiling in an attempt to increase my performance, in training and on the day of Ironman Canada, I’ve got to be sure I’m doing it right. I have to be able to differentiate between a “real” smile that evokes positive feelings and one that doesn’t. Unfortunately, throwing any random smile won’t pull us up when we’re feeling down (both in life and is sport). However, the right kind of smile can and there’s research to back this up.

Scientists over the past century have figured out that if we use the Duschene Marker, our subjective (i.e., self-report) and objective (i.e., brain activity data) experience changes. In fact, those who exhibit this marker feel much better about themselves and circumstances. Without getting into too much anatomical detail, the Duschene Marker is the contraction of the muscles around the eye that combines with the uprward curl of the mouth.  Interestingly in 1924, researcher Carney Landis concluded that smiling isn’t a good predictor of any form of emotion. As I mentioned above, I’m sure we can all agree that when someone smiles, they’re not always happy. However, his definition of smiling solely focused on the curling movement of the mouth and his oversight of the Duschenne Marker caused his findings to fall flat. Soon after this study was done, other researchers started to define a genuine smile as the combination of the upward movement of the mouth and the Duschenne Marker. Once these researchers were able to effective determine what constitutes a genuine smile, there was a flood of confirming evidence that the act of smiling causes people to experience more positive emotions.


What Smiling Does to the Brain

Smiling with the Duchenne Marker causes an increase in brain activity on the left-sided anterior region of the brain. This area is highly related to positive emotional experience. Genuine smiles also release dopamine into our brains. This is the same neurotransmitter that’s released when we win big in Vegas and is also released by substances like cocaine and caffeine. Needless to say, dopamine is the happy, feel-good neurotransmitter that we all could use a little more of. That said, smiling offers us the chance to increase the release of dopamine without having to risk our life savings in Vegas or having to turn to drugs to make it happen.

How to Fake a Genuine Smile

These are the 3 simple steps to recreating the best (research proven!)  genuine smile:

  1. Raise your cheeks up
  2. Part lips
  3. Raise the corners of your mouth up


All in all, it’s pretty straightforward. When we are feeling negative a smile can go a long way to improve our emotional experience and, in turn, our performance.

At this point in the early stages of my training, I have used smiling (not grimacing) primarily on my longer runs and it helps! The same way it helped when I took my licensure exam during the year of my post-doc and I plan to do a whole lot more of it!

Thanks for reading! Until next time…


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