Almost everyone experiences some form of stress on a regular basis and one third of Americans report living under extreme stress. Ongoing stress can negatively affects your relationships, sleeping patterns and eating habits, and it can yield serious long-term health consequences including obesity, chronic fatigue and heart disease. A positive attitude has long been touted as an effective way to reduce stress levels, and a recent study has launched a new health trend, one that involves faking it until you make it, so to speak.
Recently, psychologists at the University of Kansas set out to examine whether forcing a smile while under stress, would impact an individual’s stress levels. “Age-old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it,’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” said Tara Kraft, one of the lead researchers for the study. “We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits.”
Kraft and her colleagues recruited 169 University students for the study and had them engage in stress inducing tasks such as plunging their hands into ice cold water and tracing shapes with their non-dominant hand. The students were instructed to perform these tasks three separate times: while they were not smiling, while they were smiling naturally, and while they were holding chopsticks in their mouths in a way that forced an artificial smile. The researchers included the chopstick test because they wanted to examine the difference between a “genuine” smile which involves both the mouth and the eyes and a so-called “standard” smile (mimicked with the chopsticks) which involves only the muscles that surround the mouth. Equally important, the chopsticks eliminated a potential placebo effect because it forced the participants to smile, without them even being aware that they were doing so. The researchers measured the heart rates of the participants throughout the tasks and also had them verbally report their perceived stress levels, in order to gauge how distressed the participants were.
Not surprisingly, the stress levels of the participants dropped when they were performing the tasks with genuine smiles on their faces, more interestingly however, was the finding that even artificial smiles reduced the heart rates and stress levels of the participants. The researchers concluded that smiling during an unpleasant or stressful experience can help to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, even if the smile is forced and the person is feeling unhappy.
The grin and bear it health trend is great because not only is it simple and accessible to everyone, it is also free, and smiling often enough can actually result in a more positive attitude and a happier, healthier you. “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. Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well,” concluded study co-leader Sarah Pressman.