Kids Smile 400 Times a Day -- What about Adults?

Self on 06.23.11
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I'm not a smiley person. This doesn't mean I don't bust out a grin now and then, but during the workday I find myself preoccupied by the little mice in the attic of my mind toiling about, and I mostly tune out my fellow humans as a result (which is a shame because I work with some of the loveliest humans in the biz). Turns out that I'm missing out on a barrel of laughs -- the kind of good times that we observe our in-the-moment kids taking part in.

Here's a staggering statistic: Kids smile 400 times a day. Adults? Twenty times a day. Sure, smiling is still a novelty when you're a kid, but could we really become so jaded that we reduce our beam wattage from 400 to 20 by the time we reach adulthood? Consider the following data from Intelligent Life Magazine concerning the smile's twin sister, laughter: 11 percent of laughter is a result of joke-telling; 17 percent is from media (Weiner's weiner, LOL cats, YouTube, etc.) and a whopping 72 percent arises spontaneously from social interaction. That says a lot about how we get our happy fixes.

Health Benefits of Smiling
In a talk by Ron Gutman, "The Hidden Power of Smiling," Gutman reviews a poo-poo platter of studies on smiling, revealing that we begin to smile in the womb. He points to a British study that shows that smiling has a profound effect on the reward part of the brain: One smile is worth the sort of brain activation that 2,000 chocolate bars might elicit (insert dubious eyebrow-raising here). It can also help reduce stress-inducing hormones like adrenalin and cortisol (which can seriously mess with your sleep patterns) and increase mood-enhancing hormones like endorphins, not to mention reducing overall blood pressure.

Why Do We Smile, Anyway?
Let's dip our toes into some science for a moment: In two million years our brains have tripled in size, and as a result we have newer, niftier parts like the prefrontal cortex, which is really good at helping us manage our communications and emotions. This is a place where we can try out different scenarios and weigh the consequences before deciding to take action, like smiling or scowling. Smiling is a sort of social contract we enter into -- we're communicating to others that everything's copacetic.

Charles Darwin theorized that facial expressions don't necessarily function as a broadcast service of your mind's mental state, but that at times facial expressions actually determine your mental state. Several studies show that he was on the money, and there's even something called a "happiness hat" that proves his point (but I'm jumping ahead).

In a mimicking study subjects were asked to look at photos of people smiling and determine whether a smile was real or fake while holding a pencil in their mouths, which repressed the smiling muscles. Without the pencil the participants did a great job identifying which images of smiles were real, and which were fake. But when they had the pencil in their mouths their ability to ferret out the fakes was impaired. Why? Because they couldn't physically mirror what they were looking at, and as a result the micro-movements of their muscles weren't able to signal to the brain the emotions they were experiencing -- if they couldn't smile, they couldn't experience the emotional lift that came with a true-blue grin.

Could Botox Disconnect You From Others?
Similarly, Botox, which freezes muscles, can inhibit the ability to mimic the facial expressions of others. This prevents the person from the ability to empathize with other people. This is a big deal --mirror neurons and the ensuing muscular movements help us to not only to connect with others, but to understand what another person might be feeling. Language and nonverbal communication, as we know, is a nuanced and sometimes crappy vehicle for trying to express ourselves, but it's all that we've got. It's what makes us human.

The Happiness Hat
OK, if reducing your blood pressure, connecting to your fellow humans and feeling a ding-ding in your brain's reward center isn't enough of a reason to turn the corners of your mouth up, you should know that a Penn State University study found that people who flash their pearly whites not only spread the love and appear more "happy and courteous," according to Gutman, but they also appear to be more competent in the eyes of others.

This is great news for people who think that copping a grin can only land you in the "annoyingly happy" category. But if smiling is still an unacceptable activity to engage in, or if you're just truly frown-loyal, you can always look at a 400-times-a-day smiling tot and get a vicarious jolt of happy. It's certainly less goofy than wearing a "happiness hat."

More Top Stories on Getting Your Happy Pants On
Does Smiling Make You Happy?
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How Losing Control Can Make You a Happier Person (and a Better Mom)

(Photo credit Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images)