“Learn to keep smiling. If you smile, things will work out.” – Serena Williams

“Smile in the mirror. Do that every morning and you’ll start to see a big difference in your life.” – Yoko Ono

I’m a strong believer in the power of the mind, and I focus a lot on mental strategies that can be used to “hack” mood and behavior. However, when my emotions are driving the ship, trying to reason through a change in attitude just makes me feel worse. My internal dialog goes something like, “hey brain. I get it. I can be in a better mood right now. But I don’t feel like it. So please quiet down and just let me be upset.”

When that happens, I pull one of two tools from my bag of tricks. (OK, sometimes I use both at once.)

Attitude-Adjustment Tools

The first tool is physical activity, anything from a full workout to a quick set of air squats or push-ups, as long as it gets my blood flowing. My focus shifts to the present moment and the combination of endorphins plus the additional oxygen that I get from moving my body helps to put me in a better place. Research backs this up; exercise has been shown to be as effective as Zoloft at treating depression!1

The second tool is a smile. Not just one of those half-hearted, move your mouth smiles, but the full-fledged, crinkle-your-eyes Duchenne Smile (named after the neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, who identified the facial muscles involved in 1862).2 It can feel forced and awkward at first, but hold it for a few minutes and you might be amazed at how your mood changes. It’s like free therapy.

Why Smiling Makes Your Feel Better

We typically think that our expressions reflect our emotions, but several studies indicate that it can also work the other way; by changing the look on our faces we can change the way we are feeling.

Consider a pair of studies which looked at how emotions are impacted by muscle activity in the face. Scientists in England and Germany gave subjects botox in order to prevent them from displaying negative emotions. One of the studies then had the subjects fill out a questionnaire on anxiety and depression, and found that those who received Botox reported feeling happier and less anxious than those who didn’t. Furthermore, they did not report feeling any more attractive, which suggests that the effects are driven by physical channels rather than psychological.

In the other study, scientists had subjects mimic angry faces while having their brains scanned by an fMRI machine. They found that, “the Botox subjects had much lower activity in the brain circuits involved in emotional processing and responses—in the amygdala, hypothal­amus and parts of the brain stem—as compared with con­trols who had not received treatment.” Michael Lewis, a co-author of the second study, explains:

“It would appear that the way we feel emotions isn’t just restricted to our brain—there are parts of our bodies that help and reinforce the feelings we’re having. It’s like a feedback loop.”3

Additional research shows that the link between expressions and emotion can be used in a positive manner as well. In a study by the University of Kansas, participants were asked to perform two different stressful tasks while holding chopsticks in their mouth. They either placed the chopsticks in such a way as to maintain a neutral expression, produce a standard smile, or produce a Duchenne smile. Additionally, to correct for the effects of awareness, half of the subjects in the smiling group were explicitly told to smile, while the other half of the group were given no further instructions.

The result? All smiling participants had lower heart rates (regardless of awareness), with a slight advantage for those with Duchenne smiles. Both smiling groups were also less negatively affected by the task than the neutral group. As the studies authors explain, “these findings show that there are both physiological and psychological benefits from maintaining positive facial expressions during stress.”4


Next time you want to boost your attitude – smile! Better yet, smile in the middle of a workout. Personally there have been days when the markets give me a beating, and I’ve ended up holding a smile for over five minutes in the middle of a group fitness class. Some of the people probably think I’m just a nut who loves tough-workouts so much that I’ve got a grin plastered on my face, but I don’t mind. I always feel better when I walk out than I did when I walked in.

Plus, people who smile are judged to be more attractive,5 and sometimes when you smile, people smile back. It can start a chain-reaction of happiness that ripples through the world. Who doesn’t love that?

So smile! And then, if you are feeling it, share this article with someone else who could use a smile.


“It hurts when you have to smile, and you don’t want to smile, but the best thing to do is to smile.” – Mary J. Blige

  1. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-and-depression-report-excerpt []
  2. http://uh.edu/engines/epi883.htm []
  3. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/smile-it-could-make-you-happier/?page=1 []
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23012270 []
  5. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1571/1638 []