Smile Power! Emotional and Physical Healing

Smiling man an woman in front of a natural bridge in Arches National Park.


This is going to sound very weird. I’m smiling while lying in bed. I’m smiling while typing these words. I’m smiling when no one is around and there’s nothing particularly amusing going on. I’m doing this after reading the book The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist Monk from Vietnam, who played an important role in the 1960s and beyond.

“…begin to follow your breath and to relax all your muscles. Concentrate on keeping your spinal column straight and on following your breath. As for everything else, let it go. Let go of everything. If you want to relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face, let the half-smile come to your face. As the half-smile appears, all the facial muscles begin to relax. The longer the smile is maintained, the better. It is the same smile you see on the face of the Buddha(1).”

Thich Nhat Hanh

When Thich Nhat Hanh talks about meditation, he talks about posture, breath, focus, etc. but one thing he also emphasizes is putting on a half-smile as a part of your practice. Thich Nhat Hanh writes,”Now, begin to follow your breath and to relax all your muscles. Concentrate on keeping your spinal column straight and on following your breath. As for everything else, let it go. Let go of everything. If you want to relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face, let the half-smile come to your face. As the half-smile appears, all the facial muscles begin to relax. The longer the smile is maintained, the better. It is the same smile you see on the face of the Buddha(1).”

My student was worried I was going to be mean and say something like, “You’re the weakest link!”


This made me curious because it’s brought up a few times in the book- how smiling when meditating, leads to smiling while being mindful, leads to smiling in every moment. I think of my resting face. I’ve not ever liked it. I look mad. I once had a student say that they had been told I looked like the woman who hosted the 2000-2017 TV game show called The Weakest Link. She was worried I was going to be mean and say something like, “You’re the weakest link!” Ugg! That has stuck with me.

However, smiling all day does NOT come naturally for me. When our 6th-grade level moved from a middle school building to a K-6th elementary building, everyone smiled all the time, so I tried, too. I remember joking with my partner teacher that after the first few days my cheeks actually hurt.

I decided to look into this whole smiling thing because according to Thich Naht Hanh, it really has a major impact on our inner perceptions and also for those with whom we interact. So, I decided both to research and start this smiling thing throughout the day as much as I could remember to do it (and not make others think I was losing touch with reality).


In the article World Smile Day-How Smiling Affects Your Brain, the author explains, “Smiling activates tiny molecules in your brain that are designed to fend off stress. These molecules, called neuropeptides, facilitate communication between neurons in your brain. Also, when you smile, your brain releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are associated with lowering your anxiety and increasing feelings of happiness. In fact, serotonin is often the chemical that anti-depressant medications attempt to regulate. This natural, feel-good chemical cocktail that your brain serves up helps you feel happier and more relaxed, and it can even lower your heart rate and blood pressure (2).”

The Hidden Power of Smiling
Ted Talk presented by Ron Goodman

1. Smiling Increases Happiness Hormones

In the article What’s the Science Behind the Smile? the author, Ding Li states, “This is the start of the positive feedback loop of happiness. When our smiling muscles contract, they fire a signal back to the brain, stimulating our reward system, and further increasing our level of happy hormones, or endorphins. In short, when our brain feels happy, we smile; when we smile, our brain feels happier (8) .” 

2. Smiling Makes Us Better Looking

In addition to feeling happier, a 2011 study by researchers at the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland found that when we smile,  we actually are better looking to others! “A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia reported that seeing an attractive, smiling face activates your orbitofrontal cortex, the region in your brain that processes sensory rewards. This suggests that when you view a person smiling, you actually feel rewarded (5).”

3. Smiling Is Contagious

Another study of the effects of smiling on the brain conducted in Sweden showed that it was very difficult for subjects not to smile when shown photos of people smiling.  They were told to frown at every photo with a smiling face. Participants’ first natural reaction was to smile.  They had to consciously choose to frown in order to follow the directions (4). 

4. Smiling Gets the Job Done

In the workplace, studies have shown that smiling increases the feel-good aura which in turn increases productivity as well as creativity (6). Researcher and economics professor, Andrew Oswald’s found,  “Happier workers, our research found, were 12% more productive. Unhappier workers were 10% less productive (3).” 

4. Smiling Reduces Stress

Smiling can even help keep our bodies healthier.  Some research says it can add on years to our lives because our cells change their functioning due to our thoughts and emotions.  “When we smile, we reduce the rigidness of our cells, and this physical relaxation can help combat the risk of stress-induced cell mutations that can lead to the development or persistence of various cancers (7).” It is thought that less cellular stress allows for better balance in the body which then leads to health and overall wellness.


There are times a grin comes to my face naturally. Do you see the crow’s feet at the sides of my eyes? This is a true smile of happiness according to scientists, called the Duchenne Smile (6). When I’m around this kid, my face lights up to her bright smile. I have noticed a sense of energy and happiness comes nearly every time no matter where I am physically and emotionally before she comes over.

Smiling in Honor of the Man of Many Smiles

While writing this post this morning, I received a phone call from my cousin. My uncle Bill and surrogate dad passed away today. He was someone who never spared a smile for me. I wish right now that I had somehow captured that smile in a photo from the last time he gave it to me when we visited him and my aunt in Arizona. His smiles were always quickly followed by a hand holding or hug. During the last year, when he couldn’t speak his thoughts due to Aphasia and dementia, his smile said so much, “I’m so glad to see you! I love you! You make me happy!” That smile is etched in my memory as are the countless before, but I don’t want them to fade.

My Uncle Bill playing a game (a favorite past-time),
giving his warm and mischievous half-smile.

Did You Know There is WORLD SMILE DAY?

And so, I’m going to follow Thich Nhat Hanh suggests in his book by smiling more. I’ll let you know how my experiment goes on World Smile Day, October 2, 2020. If nothing else, it will strengthen myzygomatic major muscle, which resides in the cheek and tugs the lips upward and my orbicularis oculi muscles, which encircles the eye socket and squeezes the outside corners into the shape of a crow’s foot (6). Or I’ll make everyone wonder what I’m up to! Both are worth the effort!

My article The Danger of Distraction: Turning Toward Pain to Eliminate Suffering speaks to my feelings of trying to ignore difficult emotions and physical sensations. I’ve seen way too much of that growing up and how it has and is damaging those I love.

UPDATE 10/23/2020

I’ve been doing the Smile exercise since August, basically everyday. I use an app called Dailio that tracks my activities. I’m proud of myself that I stuck with it. I was on vacation to Utah National Parks on October 2nd, 2020, which was the actual World Smile Day this year, but I know I smiled quite a bit during our month-long trip. Has it made a huge difference? I’m not sure. I do know that I smiled during times of frustration, sadness, anger, and pain; at times it was very difficult to do. I do think it helped shorten my time of feeling down (but didn’t do anything to stop the pain).

To help lessen pain, I continue to use protocols like meditation focusing on breathing, heating pad, myofascial release, massage, stretching, Breathwork, etc. I think it’s strengthened my smile muscles, too. Not a bad thing at my age;) As long as I don’t use it to cover up or be fake, I do think this is a good practice. One addition I’ve made when I smile during the down times is to focus on acceptance, making that a part of the half-smile.

Do you smile often? Have you ever faked a smile? I challenge you to do the Half-smile Exercises for the next three months. Let’s see if we can bring a bit of goodness to the world.

teal line drawn waterlily with teal lettering of the title and motto

18 thoughts on “Smile Power! Emotional and Physical Healing

  • June 29, 2020 at 6:40 pm

    Reading about your happiness connect with some people in your life that make you happy or always smiled made me think of all the people I feel this with too – brought back some sweet memories.This was a great post in reminding us to do something that is the simplest to do yet so easily we forget. The smile hides away, buried under stresses we don't need to carry.I'll now sleep with a smile on my face 😀

  • June 30, 2020 at 8:41 am

    You bought a book by Thich Naht Hanh! I love how you incorporate it into real life right off the bat (not like me haha – I tend to 'analyse' too much!). And I also love how you incorporated the science of a smile into this post, too. Great write up!

  • June 30, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    I loved this post, Katie. I was so happy to see it popping up in my feeds. Smiling really does help with an immediate mood switch. These are great reminders for each day. I look forward to your updates! As for good books, it made me smile to see this article because we have recently become good book friends and we've had some good discussions so fa on smile worthy books.I'm going to leave off with my favorite album that makes me smile: Pharrel Williams 'Happy'. It never fails to put a smile on my face! ☺️

  • June 30, 2020 at 11:49 pm

    It may be my new medicine, but I'm remembering the half smile these past 4 days and I am feeling positive, despite the sadness of losing my uncle.

  • June 30, 2020 at 11:51 pm

    I love that song, too. And yes, I'm so glad that we are sharing book talks (via posts or individually). Books have been my life guide. As a kid, one book that kept me on the \”straight and narrow\” was THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW by SE HINTON. Have you read it?

    • October 22, 2022 at 4:46 am

      Yes I have those books got me through my teenage years.

  • June 30, 2020 at 11:53 pm

    Yes, I bought it from your post! (Thanks for introducing it and the Book Depository!) I also bought his little book on How to Relax. I've just started reading it. I did a bit of research on Thich Naht Hanh life and his impact in the world. His teachings are simple, yet very profound and life impacting.

  • July 1, 2020 at 4:43 am

    I need to check my GR list. Sometimes I've found I've read books a decade ago and the titles escape me now. I will let you know! And yes, books are life guides! I just finished Chris Hadfield's book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth and it was incredible. I wish everyone would read it simply for the powerful lessons he includes in succeeding at life.

  • July 1, 2020 at 8:06 pm

    I love this idea! I put it to the test by smiling through the reading of this after reading a post that made me tear up (the one you wrote for Mother’s Day). It really did seem to help! I just might try to get my group to try it for a week!

  • July 1, 2020 at 10:22 pm

    Glad you are finding it helpful, and thank you for reading the blog post about my mom. I'm interested in seeing how this works if I stick with it until World Smile Day. I'm recording my daily comportment, actions, meds, symptoms, etc on an App called Daylio, so I'll have an actual report in the end.

  • July 3, 2020 at 5:49 pm

    O' no I am so sorry for your loss Katie. Big hug.But I am glad you are managing to smile. 🙂

  • July 3, 2020 at 5:51 pm

    Aahh!! I love that song. You know whenever I wanna check if my internet is working or not, I type \”happy\” into the Google search box just for that song to pop-up in the searches!! 😀

  • July 4, 2020 at 10:57 am

    Really lovely post Katie! There is such power in smiling, and I've heard so many good things about the book. I really must order it soon!

  • July 5, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    Yes, I really loved it. I got it from @Chronicvoice post link using Book Depository. It has cheaper prices. I hadn't heard of it before.

  • July 7, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    Nice trick! I will give it a try and see what happens. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  • October 29, 2020 at 5:51 am

    It’s amazing how powerful smiles can be. Both for our own well-being and also for those around us!

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