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Fake It Until You Make It

“Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking."

The song Smile topped the Billboard charts in 1954. Crooner Nat King Cole also advised, “light up your face with gladness...hide every trace of sadness,” offering sage advice, wisdom that soon scientists would stamp with their approval.

“Fake it until you make it” is a sound prescription that will lead you to a happier place. Did you know that the very act of smiling will elevate your mood and replace sadness with joy? Today evidence abounds. It’s that simple to make yourself a little bit happier in the moment.

Facial feedback response theory holds that when you activate smiling muscles, you quickly release the neurotransmitters responsible for the emotion of joy. This theory is based on the fact that simulation of an emotion can actually cause that emotion.

People smile when they are happy, and, as it it turns out, people are also happy when they smile. It’s a simple act accessible to each and every single one of us.

Andrew Newberg claimed that smiling is the “symbol rated with the highest possible emotional content.” A Papua New Guinea tribe with no exposure to Western civilization uses smiles to communicate happiness and understood a smile when they saw one. Prebirth studies indicated that babies smile in the womb and just keep on doing so when they are born.

Pause for a moment and take a guess at how many times a day children smile.

Children smile about four hundred times a day, whereas a happy adult typically only manages forty to fifty grins. Some adults only get in twenty or so a day, making children about twenty times as happy. This is in keeping with most frequently recorded behavioral observations in children.

It may be no surprise that smiles are contagious, but why? Mimicking smiles is a vital part of understanding the connection between smiling and happiness and the social bonds these facial expressions forge.

Our ability to mimic a smile greatly influences our ability to determine if others’ smiles are genuine. Without the ability to reproduce it ourselves, it is difficult to connect through smiling. In addition, whether a smile is genuine or not can influence how we react to the person who is smiling and whether it influences our own happiness level.

When a real smile graces a face, we know it.

Scientists have been examining just how we can tell real from fake, and it may surprise you to know that the answer is quite physiological. Different muscle groups are used in fake smiling versus genuine smiling. Social smiles use the zygomaticus major, muscles that control the corners of the mouth and are responsible for the upward curve of a smile.

In a real smile, the extraocular muscles around the eye sockets engage. Did you know that’s why we look into others’ eyes to see how they really feel, even if they are smiling. Our brains compare the geometry in a person’s face to a genuine smile from previous experience. It is like comparing this smile to the average template of smiling that we mentally have abstracted across the years from all kinds of social interactions. Our minds evaluate whether the situation calls for a smile, and we subconsciously mimic the person’s smile, testing it out. Does it match? Does it reflect and generate a feeling of happiness?

When the smile is real, what is going on in the brain? Neuronal signals travel from the cortex to the brain stem and on down into the smiling muscles in the face. When these muscles engage, they send feedback to the brain, saying, “Hey, we’re happy!” This creates a cycle of happiness, “stimulating the brain’s reward systems in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure inducer, cannot match.”

The act of smiling is proven to affect levels of cortisol, dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins—all biochemical factors in happiness. This chemical cascade creates a positive feedback loop of happiness as endorphins are produced and neuronal signals are transmitted to facial muscles that then send a signal back to the brain, producing more endorphins.

Do you think Mother Teresa of Calcutta knew this when she said, "We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do."


Sanjiv Chopra, M.D. is a professor of medicine at, and Gina Vild is the associate dean and chief communications officer for the Office of Communications and External Relations at Harvard Medical School.

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