What Improving Your Smile Can Do for Your Mental Health

Clinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
Last Modified:

Table of Contents

  1. Smiling & Mental Health
  2. Smiling & Perception
  3. Reciprocal Smiling
  4. Smiling & Looking Young
  5. Don't Feel Like Smiling
  6. Assumptions About Smiles
  7. Smiling at Work
  8. How to Smile More

Your smile can boost your mental health, even if you don’t feel like smiling. Your smile can also boost the mental health of people around you.

Smiling & Mental Health

The simple act of smiling stimulates the release of neuropeptides, chemical messengers that are involved in many physiological functions.1 They are responsible for sending signals through the central nervous system when we feel depressed or angry and also when we feel excited or happy.

Additionally, neurotransmitters (another category of chemical messenger) like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are similarly produced by the brain when you smile. This is why you feel relaxed when you smile. These neurotransmitters are also responsible for lowering your blood pressure and your heart rate.

When you smile, the serotonin secreted by your brain has an antidepressant effect. This is why many pharmaceutical antidepressants work by stimulating serotonin production in your brain.

Simply putting your mouth in the shape of a smile changes how blood flows to your brain.

How Smiling Affects Perception

Smiling can make you look better to others. The Neuropsychologia journal explains that people react more favorably when they see someone smiling even if they’re not the recipients of the smile. Study participants said that the person smiling seemed more sincere, relaxed, reliable, and even more attractive, so they were inclined to like the person more.2

This is because when you see someone smiling, it activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, which processes sensory rewards. Researchers suggest that this means that when you see someone smiling at you, you feel like you are being rewarded for your interaction with them. In this way, having a healthy smile can help both you and the people around you.

Reciprocal Smiling

The cingulate cortex, an unconscious automatic response area in the brain, is affected by smiles.

Researchers in Sweden showed their test subjects pictures of people displaying several emotions. When the subjects were presented with a picture of someone smiling, the researchers asked them to frown. Instead, the subjects directly imitated the smile.

The researchers concluded that smiling at another person means that the other person will not be able to resist smiling back unless they’re making a conscious effort not to return the smile.

To put it another way, whenever you smile at someone else, their brain compels them to return the smile. This creates a connection that allows both you and the other person to release chemicals in the brain that will reduce stress levels, activate the reward and anticipation centers in your brain, and boost your overall health and happiness.

Smiling Can Keep You Looking Young

If you’re worried about getting older, smiling can make you look younger. The physical act raises your cheeks, jowls, and even your neck.

Having a raised face like this makes people think you’re not only happy but also that you’re younger than you look. For many people struggling with aging, this boost in how people interact with them can give some peace of mind.

When You Don't Feel Like Smiling

Even if you don’t feel like smiling, there is value in making yourself smile.3

In 2012, researchers asked test subjects to hold chopsticks in their mouths in different configurations that mimicked either smiles or neutral expressions. The subjects were then given a series of stressful tasks to do.

Those who smiled had lower heart rate levels after completing those tasks compared to those who kept a neutral expression. Even subjects who were told to smile showed less stress than subjects who were given no similar instructions.

Reviewing the implications of the study, Forbes concluded that even having a smile on your face for a short period of time can elevate your mood and reduce your stress. Even if there’s no real emotion behind the smile, these same effects can still be achieved.

While it’s not a long-term solution for depression or anxiety, faking a smile can help improve mood temporarily.

Assumptions About Smiles

Smiling, in general, gives the impression that you are competent, likable, and courteous. Why competent?

People assume that someone who looks sad or anxious may not know what they are doing. Smiling conveys a sense of confidence and assurance, reassuring others who are looking at you. In this way, smiling through a difficult task can help you settle your nerves and improve your focus on accomplishing the task.

The reasons are not complicated. The better you feel about how you look, the better you feel about yourself. It is not dissimilar to people feeling happier or more confident when they dress up.

Dentists will note that clean teeth give you the freedom to smile and laugh without being self-conscious about poor dental hygiene. Patients report feeling more present and in the moment when they don’t have to worry about what others will think about their teeth.

Smiling at Work

Smiling also has positive effects at work. Smiling tells your coworkers that you’re an upbeat person, and because of the way it can universally improve mood and lower stress, smiling can boost productivity. In 2019, Oxford University’s Saïd Business School reported that workers who are happy at their jobs are 13 times more productive.

Smiling can work well in management as well. If you’re in a leadership position, smiling can put your workers at ease, and it creates a positive work environment, which in turn leads to better company culture. The more comfortable and secure people feel on the job, the better they will perform.

How to Smile More

With all this evidence that smiling can improve your mental health, how can you encourage yourself to smile and laugh more? There are a number of things you can try:

  • Find humor throughout your day. This may mean signing up for a joke-a-day service that is sent to your inbox, watching a funny movie, or playing with a pet.

  • Connect with other people. Smiling is a basic human expression. It is common to everyone, everywhere, regardless of culture or gender. As humans, we are socialized to smile and laugh when we’re among friends.

  • Spend time with your friends and enjoy their company. You’ll find you smile more when you do.

  • Laugh at yourself. There are many mental health benefits to not taking yourself too seriously, such as fostering positive interpersonal reactions or simply reminding yourself that you’re human and that you have a right to enjoy your life.

  • Force some laughter if you have to. Remember that even faking a smile can boost your mood. If you smile when you don’t feel like smiling, you can fool your brain into releasing the neurotransmitters and neuropeptides that will actually help you feel better.

Smiling is a basic and biological uniform human expression. Aim to smile more, and you might find you simply feel better overall.

Taking care of your teeth through proper brushing, consistent flossing, and regular cleanings and checkups at a dentist’s office will help you smile with confidence. Proper teeth alignment can also make you feel more confident to smile with ease.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.