Smiling is the universal sign of happiness. We all feel a little spark inside when we smile. Our eyes brighten and cheekbones rise as we flash our pearly whites, outwardly showing our internal joy and satisfaction. But that little spark we feel when we smile – just what is it?

There’s a lot of research around the science behind a smile. It turns out that this seemingly small gesture involves a lot of our body’s systems working together – including our brain, nerves and hormones.

When we smile, little chemical messages are released into our nervous system. These messages communicate with our brain to let us know we’re 'happy'. ‘This communication then triggers the brain to produce and release the ‘feel-good’ hormones: dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. This winning combination of hormones help relax the body and lift your mood. Dopamine motivates us to continue rewarding behaviours like smiling, endorphins trigger positive feelings in the body, while serotonin helps regulate your mood.

The release of these chemicals sends signals to other nerve cells and from there, the good vibes spread as they create a positive feedback loop. We smile, we feel good. We feel good, we smile.

Researchers have found that endorphins produced when smiling help alleviate stress by reducing the production of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Stress, especially long periods of it, weakens your immune system and can lead to burn out, affecting your wellbeing. But by smiling, you’re reducing the production of stress hormones and helping out both your immune system and general wellbeing. So, you can mark smiling down as a boost for your health too.

The old ‘saying’ that smiling is contagious also rings true. Studies conducted in Sweden found that it’s very difficult to frown when someone is smiling at you. Frowning is a controlled effort by the body and smiling overpowers that control. It’s a natural reaction by the brain to mirror a person’s smile and return the favour.

Researchers think this habit comes from our past, thousands of years ago. Bonding with other humans was a survival mechanism that helped early humans hunt and build communities. The brain sees a smile as an expression of your willingness to build a relationship.

At the end of the day, this basic biological expression just feels good – but just how good is ‘good’? Well, a study by British researchers found that a smile can feel as rewarding and stimulating to the brain as 2,000 bars of quality chocolate – that’s saying something.

So, you can mark smiling down as a scientifically proven, feel-good activity: a gift that just keeps on giving, a pep in your step, a care package for yourself. Make sure smiling is on top of your daily to-do list.

Related reading: 15 stress-busting activities to help you relax

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