The Science Behind Smiles: Everything You Need to Know

The Science Behind Smiles

It should come as no surprise to learn that smiling reduces stress. What might come as a surprise, however, is that even a fake smile can reduce your stress levels. Yep. It’s true. According to a study from University of Tennessee at Knoxville (reported in Science News), just the act of smiling can lead people to feel happy even if they aren’t.

Try it. We’ll wait.

How do you feel? Happier?

The University of Tennessee study’s findings don’t apply to only faked smiles. You can get the same body-mind connection when you force a frown, scowl, or make faces associated with unhappiness.

Why should we care about this?

Well, how about this for a reason: Smiles are contagious (in a good way!). When you smile, others are more likely to drop their guards and smile back. Another study from University of Wisconsin, also reported by Science News, found that whether we do it deliberately or without realizing it, when we smile, others around us smile too; likewise, when we scowl, others pick up on the vibe.

To understand the body-mind connection between facial expressions and emotions, the University of Wisconsin identified three types of smiles: reward smiles, affiliation smiles, and dominance smiles.  

Understanding 3 Types of Smiles

What are reward smiles?

reward smile

This is the most sincere of the smiles. It’s a natural, organic reaction to kindness, love, joy, and humor. It’s nicknamed the “Duchenne smile” after a 19th Century scientist (Healthline). Because it is the most natural and sincere smile, it has the biggest effect on your emotions. Reward smiles make the best photographs because the subjects truly look happy.

What are affiliation smiles?

So, on the hierarchy of smiles, the affiliation smile is a little less sincere than the reward smile. Think of it as a polite response to a passerby, a greeting to a coworker in the morning, or a signal to your friend that you’re paying attention to whatever they’re saying. In a photograph, the affiliate smiler looks like they’re uncomfortable in front of a camera! Affiliation smiles have a lower impact on your mood, but they still can lift you up.

What about dominance smiles — what’s that?


Think of this type of smile as more of a sneer. It might even be a lopsided smile, with one side of the mouth more upturned than the other. Dominance smiles are not about happiness or politeness. They’re about smugness, know-it-all-ness and even some deceit. But still, a smile of dominance has been shown to elicit feelings of happiness, though on a lower scale than reward and affiliation smiles.   

Anatomy of a Smile

Our face consists of 43 muscles, however, you don’t need all of them to smile. Smiles tend to use around six or seven of them. Amongst all, reward smiles use the most, followed by affiliation smiles and dominance smiles.

So, you could say that smiling is a great way to workout your facial muscles!

Beyond muscle contraction, smiling has a chemical impact on our bodies: Smile helps the release of serotonin and endorphin, natural mood boosters and painkillers.

A University of Kansas study found that when people are forced to smile, they experienced lower heart rates and lower signs of stress. A Harvard Health report goes even further to suggest that feelings of optimism can help you live longer. People who were identified as “optimists” has a greater chance of living beyond age 85.

That’s enough to make you smile!   

Tips for Getting Your Smile On

smiling couple

1. Reduce negative content

Turn off negative news, stop watching true-crime shows, and limit your exposure to content that triggers feelings of sadness and rage.

2. Practice gratitude every day

When you wake up, silently thank five people, even trying to include people you might not like.

3. Brighten your smile

When you feel more confident with your smile, you are more likely to do it. When you smile more, you feel better. Try this home whitening kit, which not only brightens but also fortifies your teeth. Your dentist will smile at your next visit.

4. Make eye contact and smile at passersby

Of course, take caution not to stare or attract unwanted attention. A brief smile to a new mom, a young couple or a frustrated child can go a long way for everyone.

5. Smile, even when you’re alone

When was the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror and smiled? How much time do we spend scrutinizing our blemishes, lines and wrinkles? Smile at that face in the mirror.

6. Replace negative expressions with smiles

So the next time you get cut off in traffic, don’t scowl, smile! Just make sure it’s a reward smile, and not dominance smile!

Article Submitted By Community Writer

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