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How Smiling Changes Your Brain

Putting on a happy face doesn't just make you more likeable; it makes you healthier, both good for your career.

[Photo: Flickr user Donnie Ray Jones]

Few people would argue that smiling is bad for you, but new research is showing just how many ways smiling is beneficial to your career and well-being.

We know smiling can greatly improve your mood and reduce stress. Even better, your smile doesn’t have to be real, so you can fake it and still get the same results.

Smiling doesn’t just benefit you on the inside. It also works to your advantage from the outside. A study from Penn State University found that people who smile appear to be more likeable, courteous. and even competent. This is reason enough to smile at every person you potentially want to do business with. Lifting those facial muscles into a smile is also contagious; if you smile and they smile, everyone in the room becomes a little happier. Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden concluded that frowning when looking at someone smiling is possible, but would be very difficult.

Why is a smile so powerful? It all comes down to how smiling can change your brain.

When you smile, your brain is aware of the activity and actually keeps track of it. The more you smile, the more effective you are at breaking the brain’s natural tendency to think negatively. If you smile often enough, you end up rewiring your brain to make positive patterns more often than it does negative ones.

Shawn Achor dubs retraining our "brain to scan for the good things in life—to help us see more possibility, to feel more energy, and to succeed at higher levels" as "The Positive Tetris Effect" in his book The Happiness Advantage. His argument is that the popular game Tetris has a tendency to make such an impression on players that after it’s been shut off, people still see Tetris blocks in real life. According to Achor, we can do the same thing by practicing a more positive thinking pattern, which, ultimately creates a happiness loop.

Achor writes: "Happiness is a work ethic… It’s something that requires our brains to train just like an athlete has to train."

The more we train, the easier it becomes to think positively, shut out negativity, and, in turn, boost your productivity and creativity, which allows you to perform better at work and life.

Yes, all of those benefits can come from a simple smile. The more you do it, the more signals your brain will have to mentally shift to positive thoughts even when you might be in a situation that would normally cause you alarm.

Aside from your mental state, smiling can also end up saving your life, as Sondra Barrett claims in her book Secrets of Your Cells.

The biochemist says that when you let go of tension—an outcome that can be achieved through smiling—your cells let go of their rigidness. According to Barrett’s research, this could end up saving your life as there are have been cases where cancer patients go into remission of cancer after letting go of a big stress factor.

"Our cells are more than just fortuitous arrangements of chemicals," she explains. "They are a community of trillions of sentient entities cooperating to create a sanctuary for the human soul."

Scientifically speaking, smiling more is a great thing for your life. It doesn’t cost you anything to do it and you can actually fake it and get the same big results. Your career might even take a turn for the better as productivity increases, your attention span and cognitive abilities are improved, and you exude competence everywhere you go. With all of the benefits above, who wouldn’t want to start smiling more?