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The science behind a smile

Have you ever wondered why humans smile? The obvious answer is because we experience a joyous moment – but the science behind a smile uncovers the complex relationship between psychology and physiology. Believe it or not, even the simple act of smiling can make you happier.

This is a guest post by Ed Botterill, Founder and Director, BackThen

The act of smiling is so powerful, that many scientists have even concluded that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to £16,000 in cash.

Given that smiling can be so powerful, it is important to identify what triggers joy in humans. More specifically, how can families experience this joy together to increase their sense of belonging to each other?

Gretchen Ruben, author of the best-selling book The Happiness Project indicates that photography can cause immense joy. This is also backed by science, as studies indicate that photo albums can serve as a powerful trigger for smiling and laughter in the family as they allow them to relive cherished memories. More importantly, memories can serve as a powerful emotional tool for anyone struggling in the present moment, providing reassurance, distraction, warmth and a vital comforting stability.

Exploring the science of smiling

The science of smiling can be explained through the facial feedback hypothesis, which suggests there is a strong link between facial expressions and emotions. This term was coined by Charles Darwin, and later proven by a German study which investigated the effect of Botox injections on people’s emotional experiences. The study found that when injected into the forehead, Botox can alleviate depression. It also dampens negative emotions in people with borderline personality disorder.

This hypothesis operates through a feedback loop, where the physical act of smiling triggers positive emotions. This, in turn, reinforces the act of smiling. In other words, not only do our emotions shape our facial expressions, but our facial expressions can also influence our emotions.

Smiling also causes the release of the happy hormones in our body, because when we smile our brain releases endorphins, which enable feelings of pleasure. Endorphins also reduce stress and pain, which naturally improves our mood. Smiling also releases dopamine, which leads to feelings of reward and motivation.

Active mood management

While the act of smiling itself is a powerful trigger for smiles and laughter, it can sometimes be hard to force a smile when we aren’t feeling particularly joyful. However, there are easy ways to get a smile on your face, one way is by looking at old family photographs.

Research from BackThen revealed that 90% of parents said that their child smiles or laughs when they look at photos of themselves. Many parents and grandparents shared their experience of how viewing family pictures with their children inspired moments of joy and bonding within the family, with comments like this: “My daughter loves to look back at photos of happy memories. She also likes to giggle at videos of her as a toddler!”

Parents even suggested that photo albums are a great way to help children at moments in their lives when they are feeling overwhelmed, or when they have lost perspective. As one parent shared: “My son often feels overwhelmed at times and photos help him focus on the positives. He smiles and talks about what happened in the photo and often talks about going back somewhere.”

Professor Geoffrey Beattie, internationally acclaimed psychologist, explains why this is the case: “Family portraits are designed to be looked at periodically over time, and this is often part of a social ritual within a family. Such events can profoundly affect mood when you’re feeling down – they can make us happier.”

Photos remind us of the people, places, and activities we love. Photos also help us remember the past, and relive happy memories that we might have forgotten. Revisiting old photos as a family and experiencing these joyous memories can also strengthen bonds, because this activity can trigger important conversations.

Beattie also explains the psychology behind why photographs can improve our mood. The psychological term for this is active mood management, in which you distract yourself from the present negative mood and actively change your pattern of thinking. This is the most effective mood management technique that humans have at their disposal, and looking at family albums fits into this category.

Numerous psychological studies have highlighted the impact of active mood management techniques, linked to a plethora of long-term benefits, including buffering against depressive symptoms, fostering resilience, enhancing emotional regulation, and promoting overall psychological wellbeing.

Bringing joy to the family

While the science behind a smile may be complex, finding joy and laughter as a family isn’t. It could be as easy as spending quality time together flicking through a photo album.

As children get older and find their own independent lives, it is crucial for parents to instil positive habits from a young age to enrich familial ties, but to also equip their children with a powerful mechanism to improve their mental wellbeing.

Establishing a strong foundation for children to fall back on when they’re dealing with challenges is incredibly important. Revisiting old family photographs together is an enjoyable activity, but it also provides children with a strong sense of belonging within the family unit.

This post was written by Ed Botterill, Founder and Director, BackThen

Ed Botterill, Founder and Director, BackThen

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