Clear Yo Mind
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Clear Yo Mind

Does Happiness Make You Smile Or Do You Smile To Become Happy?

Going down the rabbit hole of the smile-happiness causality dilemma

Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

The well-known old riddle that’s sparked so much controversy through time: was it the chicken or the egg that came first?

But let’s stick to our smile-happiness dilemma in this article. In the book titled The How of Happiness, positive psychology Sonja Lyubomirsky defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

It is certainly difficult to reach a unanimous decision in regards to what happiness really is. I see it as a fleeting positive emotion. That most of us are pursuing. Because it feels good.

On the other hand, a smile is ‘a facial expression in which the eyes brighten and the corners of the mouth curve slightly upward and which expresses especially amusement, pleasure, approval, or sometimes scorn.’, according to the Webster Dictionary. Some people would agree Mona Lisa became famous because of her unique smile.

Smiling doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

Take me for instance. I didn’t use to smile much. People kept saying: you have a beautiful smile, you should smile more often. Or: cheer up and turn that frown upside down. To the point, these remarks became extremely annoying to me. Especially since I wasn’t going through a particularly happy phase of my life.

Lacking awareness, I was more or less at the mercy of external events. My mood depended on whether my day was going well or not. And my train of thought went something like: if I’m happy, I smile and if not, what’s the point?

Little did I know I was wrong.

When I started studying psychology and became more aware through mindfulness and meditation practices, I realized I had it all backward. I was in control of my emotions. I was the one to decide whether I wanted to be happy or not. Not the other way around. So I started smiling more. And my life really changed for the best.

What happens to our brain when we smile?

Let’s say for instance you meet someone you are fond of. According to Leo Widrich’s article, once they get in your visual range, the neuronal signal travels from the cortex of your brain to the brainstem. From there, the signal is carried further towards the muscles of your face in charge of smiling.

“When you smile, the brain sees the muscle [activity] and assumes that humor is happening.”

— Dr. Grossan.

I used to work as a teacher. And there were days when I wasn’t in a particularly good mood. But I would nonetheless put a smile on my face before starting class. After only a few minutes in, I could already feel the shift in my well-being.

Smiling can trick your brain into believing you’re happy which can then spur actual feelings of happiness. Isn’t that interesting?

Here are 3 main reasons why you should smile:

Smiling releases dopamine and serotonin

According to Dr. Isha Gupta, a smile acts as a catalyst for a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is the ‘feel-good’ hormone whilst serotonin is associated with reduced stressed levels.

So, you instantly feel good when you smile. Even if it’s a fake smile. Your brain cannot tell the difference. That’s because it has been conditioned over the years to associate smiling with happiness. Another reason is that the brain interprets the positioning of the facial muscles in the same way as if it were a genuine smile. Smiling seems to give us the same happiness that exercising induces.

Next time you smile, pay attention to how you feel. Any changes in your well-being?

Smiling is contagious

Yes, smiling is contagious! This is because “we have mirror neurons that fire when we see action,” according to Dr. Eva Ritzo. Mirror neurons enable us to copy and reflect another’s behavior.

You mirror others, whether you are aware of it or not. Especially, people, you are familiar with. For instance, if someone yawns, you’ll probably do so as well. Or adopt a certain body posture because the other one is doing it. Mostly unconsciously. Although it can also be done at a conscious level if the other person is trying to earn your trust. Conspicuously, if they have previously studied body language techniques.

We also reciprocate the smile because it sends us a signal of endearment, safety, and trustworthiness. This only works though if it’s a Duchenne smile-a facial expression resulting from true happiness, characterized by engaging the muscles around a person’s mouth and eyes. If it’s just a polite smile, our subconscious can sense it. That’s because when we’re just being polite, we don’t engage our eye muscles.

Think of the last time someone smiled at you. Genuinely. Authentically. Perhaps at a supermarket, or a restaurant, or whilst waiting in a queue. Did you feel like smiling back at them?

It doesn’t even have to be face-to-face interaction. Merely looking at a photo of someone smiling gives us good vibes and activates our mirror neurons. Or looking at the photo of a cute animal. Here’s one of my favorites, a smiling quokka and her baby:

Photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash

Smiling is beneficial to your health

An interesting study I came across whilst during my research for this article states that people who could not frown due to botox injections were happier on average than those who could frown.

Smiling can also improve your overall health by lowering stress levels, decreasing heart rate, and boosting your immune system. Have you noticed that you are more prone to get sick when you’re in a low mood or stressed? It sure has happened to me.

So, that’s an added bonus. Makes one wonder why doctors don’t add a smile to their usual prescription.

Here’s a 3 step guide to practice smiling more

If smiling doesn’t come naturally to you, like it was in my case, that’s ok. Here are a few tips that have worked for me:

  1. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Those mirror neurons don’t get triggered only when you see someone else, but also when you see your own reflection in the mirror. Smiling at yourself is very powerful.
  2. Think of something funny. I used to work with a girl who smiled a lot. When I ask her what her secret was she told me: ‘I just think of funny things.’ You can think of something funny someone said to you. Or a comedy you watched recently where one of the characters made a great joke. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to dissociate from the present moment. Just enough to put a smile on your face.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. When something doesn’t go as planned, adopt a more relaxed and easy-going attitude. Take things more light-heartedly. Do you spill coffee on yourself? Smile. Do you trip in front of someone? Smile. Laugh at yourself even. Nobody is perfect.

You have to do it on a daily basis though. The more you practice these steps, the more it’ll come naturally to you. Rewiring your brain can take up to 3–4 weeks, but that also depends on your consistency.

If I did it, so CAN YOU!

So, does happiness make you smile, or do you smile to become happy? According to this study, it is proven that your smiling can make you happy. Whenever you have to deal with stressful situations, smiling can help decrease your stress levels and make you happier.

At the same time, happiness can make you smile. Perhaps you weren’t having a good day but then all of the sudden you received good news and your mood changed. You became happy. Bursting of joy! And by all means, that’s awesome!

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh

Whilst both statements are true, the point is, you shouldn’t depend on external stimuli for happiness. You are in control of your happiness. The external world should only contribute to your joyous self, not define it.


Smiling can trick your brain into becoming happier due to the release of dopamine and serotonin. It is also contagious due to mirror neurons. Last but not least, it positively impacts your overall health.

If smiling doesn’t come naturally to you, there are ways you can change that by: smiling at yourself in the mirror, thinking of something funny and not taking yourself so seriously.

Happiness leads to smiling. You have experienced it before and you know how great that feels. But you shouldn’t depend solely on external circumstances or other people to make you happy.

Smiling leads to happiness, giving your brain the chance to rewire itself. As a result, you adopt a more positive outlook on life. Plus, you never know whose day you’re going to brighten with your smile. Which will then cause a ripple effect.

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

— Mother Teresa

So…smile! :)

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