Smile – enjoy a feel-good party in your brain!

For years, I have greeted folks where-ever I go with a smile. It always seemed like the right thing, the
kind thing to do. Little did I know, I was actually altering my brain chemicals and creating positive
energy that benefitted me, also!

Technically, when we smile, we activate the zygomatic major muscle in our cheeks. It lifts the corners of
your mouth at the same time the orbicularis oculi muscle lifts your cheeks and makes your eyes crinkle
at the corners. Activating these muscles actually activates the release of neuropeptides.

Neuropeptides systematically facilitate messaging in the whole body. These are, also, the tiny
molecules that allow the neurons in your brain to communicate.

Neuropeptides support the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains. We release dopamine (this is our
attention modulator. It helps us pay attention and helps us maintain an action plan despite distraction –
really important for our youth and adults!). We release serotonin (this is the neurotransmitter that
helps us feel hopeful, optimistic, thoughtful, and focused – we all want a brain full of this one!)
AND neuropeptides stimulate the release of endorphins (this is the pain reliever neuropeptide – it
operates on the opiate receptors in our brains – they reduce pain, boost pleasure and result in a feeling
of well-being – a gift to all – bring them on!)

There is a wonderful research study that showed the effect of smiling with a group of college students.
Of course, they didn’t know what they were supposed to be experiencing. They were asked to hold a
chopstick between their teeth so that it engaged the Zygomatic muscle while they were responding to a
questionnaire or doing a task. Those students who were in the “chopstick” group, reported being more
relaxed and feeling they had performed better than the group without the chopsticks.

Giving and receiving a human smile is truly powerful. The Duchenne smile was named after Guillaume
Duchenne, 19th century scientist who was recognized for mapping the muscles of the human body,
including those that control our facial expressions. The Duchenne smile is reported to make you seem
generous, caring, and trustworthy. So, of course, people will respond positively to you when you smile
at them.

In case, you haven’t shared a smile with yourself recently, you might want to try one on right now!
When you smile, you momentarily distract yourself from whatever you were thinking or doing.
Releasing all those neuropeptides allows your positive energy to recharge. This can be truly helpful
when you are having a long day, feeling the weight of the current news, or trying to do the multitude of
tasks that make up your day.

And be sure to share your smile with your kids, partner, friends, and neighbors – we are all up for a feel-
good party in our brains!


Dr. Joan M. Smith, CA Licensed Educational Psychologist