Smiles and optimism can change depression, personal direction

Published: Monday, March 4 2013 2:00 p.m. MST

A scene from "Life of Pi."

Twentieth Century Fox

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Research says if you smile — even without actual enthusiasm — you're apt to improve your outlook and lower your stress level. That optimistic message is bolstered by the audience response to recent blockbusters about resilience and joy: "Life of Pi" and "Silver Linings Playbook."

Add some genuine feeling to the smile and the possibilities are tantalizing.

"We smile because we feel not threatened," Sarah Pressman, assistant psychology professor at University of California, Irvine, and co-author of a study published in November in Psychological Science, recently told the Wall Street Journal.

Some research suggests that only a heartfelt and genuine smile has positive effects. Her study, which involved using chopsticks to position subjects' mouths either with the corners of the mouth up in a standard smile, in a fuller smile called a Duchenne or in a neutral position, found either smile slowed the heart rate and improved recovery from stressful situations.

"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," co-author Tara Kraft of the University of Kansas told Science Daily prior to the study's publication. "We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits."

Science Daily said the researchers had 169 subjects learn to hold the chopsticks in one of three ways, and then simultaneously they each had to perform multitasking activities that were designed to be stressful, though they weren't told that. Their heart rates and self-reported stress levels throughout were monitored. Those who "smiled" were physiologically less stressed.

"The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress," Pressman told SD, "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!"

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science in November.

Others have noted similar value to projecting happiness.

"Like ‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook’is about how we can tame our inner demons with hope and a positive outlook on life. By finding meaning and love in terrible circumstances, as Pi and Pat do, they overcome their suffering and, in the process, reveal how uplifting silver linings can be," wrote Emily Esfahani Smith in The Atlantic.

Freud got it wrong, she wrote, noting studies on the topic. "Researchers, for example, asked people who were mildly-to-moderately depressed to dwell on their depression for eight minutes. The researchers found that such ruminating caused the depressed people to become significantly more depressed and for a longer period of time than people who simply distracted themselves thinking about something else. Senseless suffering — suffering that lacks a silver lining — viciously leads to more depression."

"Studies have found that the intensity of a person's smile can help predict life satisfaction over time and even longevity. What's unclear is whether smiling reflects a person's overall happiness or if the act of smiling contributes to that happiness," wrote the WSJ's Sumathi Reddy. "Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale University, believes it is a bit of both."

"It's probably bidirectional," LeFrance told her. "People who smile more tend to elicit more positive connections with other people." Reddy believes that makes people happier and healthier.

Laughing is a pretty good idea, as well, according to the Mayo Clinic. It notes benefits that include not only the short-term effects of stress reduction, but long-term help of an improved immune system, pain relief and increased personal satisfaction. In other words, something to smile about.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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