Smile! Why we usually hate people telling us that – and why we should do it anyway.

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Usually people don’t say this to us unless we’re doing the opposite. And when that’s the case, we usually have no desire to smile – either we’re not feeling happy, or we’re frustrated, or we are struggling in some way…whatever the reason, the last thing we usually feel like doing at that given moment is smiling.

Super annoying examples of this are the suggestion to smile from a fitness instructor during a tough workout, an unsolicited photographer when you’ve been pushed into being in a picture, or a stranger who might happen to see you feeling down. If you’re anything like me, the initial response is usually not to comply but to adopt a more intense display of displeasure, adding a scowl or sarcastic expression to the one already there.

At least that used to be me – it’s not anymore.

One day during my typical morning exercise a la DVD, I heard the smile command in the same place I always hear it, right toward the end of the intense part of the workout, strategically placed where it’s obviously known that I have a wincing look of agony plastered on my face. While my reaction to this had always been to ignore it, roll my eyes, or reply with some form of explicative, I decided to try an experiment and see what happened if I did indeed take the advice from the overly positive fitness instructor. And so I smiled back at the screen.

Something really weird happened. I actually felt better. The tough workout didn’t feel like such a struggle from that point forward.

So I furthered my experiment: the next day, I started smiling from the beginning of the workout, and I continued to smile. Sometimes I would notice I wasn’t smiling anymore, so I’d just start smiling again. This time, I noticed that not only did the entire workout not seem as hard, but it also seemed to go by a lot faster.

I started smiling in other parts of the day, and the same thing happened – somehow, I felt better, and whatever I was doing seemed more pleasant and easier. And I made a particular effort to smile when I was doing something difficult or something I didn’t want to do. These tasks lost the feelings of aversion or discomfort I had attached to them, and overall things were just less stressful.

Surely this wasn’t just a me thing, so I decided to do some research to see what existed on the subject, and sure enough there’s a lot of it: studies have been done that show the benefits of smiling, even when it’s fake. The main scientific reason this works is this: when we smile, the brain releases endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, and those little chemicals make us feel happier and lower stress levels. Endorphins also lower the feeling of pain in the body. Smiling has also shown to make people more productive, more creative, more approachable, and it’s also shown that people who smile more are more successful and live longer. And as an extra bonus, what I had experienced has been studied as well: smiling while performing adverse tasks can change the feelings associated with that task to something more positive.

There are tons of articles on the benefits of smiling and lots of scientific research. In fact, the theories about why smiling makes us feel better have been around for the past 200 years. Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Forbes, Scientific American, the Smithsonian, and the Harvard Business Review – just to name some of many – have all featured articles about this.

So with such a plethora of information on the subject available and the fact that the information has been known for so long, why aren’t we doing this all the time? The reason is the same here as it is for everything: if you’re going to acquire a new habit, you have to practice it. Luckily, this habit is an already-inherent skill, known to us all since birth. So it’s just a matter of remembering to do so. That shouldn’t be too difficult – just notice what your face is doing the next time you’re experiencing difficulty, frustration, monotony, or anything else that would infer that you are bemoaning the task at hand.

It should go without saying that obviously there are some situations for which this is not appropriate, but in comparison to ones where it would be, that number is small. So try it out today and see what it feels like! Perhaps you’ll start enjoying those less enjoyable tasks. 🙂

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