Smiling may not make cartoons funnier, as a recent research study claims, but smiling is definitely good for your wellbeing.

Try this little trick, look at a cartoon in this newspaper. Did you find it amusing? Grab a pencil, pen or a chopstick and hold the end between the teeth so it doesn’t touch lips and look at the cartoon. Science suggests that you will now find the cartoon more amusing.

Holding a pen between teeth induces smiles, while holding it between lips induces a frown. The muscles that make you small work very hard giving our brains a rush of endorphins, the hormones responsible for a general sense of wellbeing. Smiling is like laughing, singing, listening to good music, meditating or even eating chocolates which help release feel-good endorphins in the brain.

The decades-old idea that facial expressions can influence a person’s emotional state – or people find cartoons funnier if they surreptitiously induced to smile– has now been challenged by researchers at the University of Amsterdam. Their experiments on 1,900 participants found no difference in the way people pen-induced smiles or frowns rated the cartoons.

Fritz Strack, the German psychologist, who in 1988 first experimented on people looking at cartoons from Gary Larson’s classic series, Far Side, disagrees with the new findings. As psychologists debate the issue, there are still reasons to turn up the wattage of your smile, with or without the help of a pen.

A standard smile uses only the muscles surrounding the mouth, while a genuine smile, produces a spontaneous expression of positive emotion by engaging the muscles surrounding both mouth and eyes.

Using the classic pen-in-mouth tricks, researchers at the University of Kansas asked participants to create standard or genuine smiles and work on multitasking activities, unknown to them were designed to be stressful. Participants with genuine smiles had lower heart rate levels after recovering from stressful activities. Other participants reported a smaller decrease in positive effect.

“The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment,” advises Dr Sarah Pressman, the lead researcher, “Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear’ psychologically, but it might actually help your health as well.”

Other studies have shown other engaging effects of a genuine smile. In a 30-year study, researchers matched college yearbook photos of women who displayed a genuine smile with personality data collected when these women were at age 27, 43 and 52. They found that these women had higher levels of wellbeing and marital satisfaction three decades later when they were in their early 50s.

It’s fascinating to know that a photograph captures not only passing emotions of the moment but also the future. Smile naturally and brightly when a camera lens is staring at you.

© Surendra Verma 2017

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