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The awesome power of a fake smile

The famous 'smiley face' icon 😀 is famous for a reason. It makes us want to smile back. Why?

In our brain we have mirror neurons and these mirror neurons are our key to decoding the emotions and actions of others. As Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles says of mirror neurons, they "are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile."

But, Is the ball really smiling? After all – it's only a ball.

Well, as good as.

According to Dr Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University, Adelaide, emoticons (including the smiley face), is a new form of language that we're adapting to have and when we see a smiley face icon, the area of our brain that recognises real faces, lights up.

So far so good; when we see a fake smile (or a real one on an actual person), it makes us feel better.

Why do we feel better?

Smiling gives us a 'lift' by changing our body chemistry. Our brain releases Beta Endorphins (our natural pain killers) and Serotonin (our 'feel good' neurotransmitter).

Smiling (especially when we do it consciously and enthusiastically), can re-focus our brain away from worries and cares and onto something that (usually) is non-threatening, happy or peaceful. I say usually because hang-gliding might make you smile but it is a risk-taking activity. Perception has a lot to do with whether or not it makes you feel better. As I always say, "One person's panic attack is another person's roller-coaster"; it's subjective.

What about our own smiles – can we fake them to feel better?

For a smile to be genuine, the French neurologist Guilliame Duchenne discovered that two sets of muscles on your face need to be involved, the ones around your mouth (naturally), but most importantly – it's the muscles around your eyes that make a real, and what we now call a 'Duchenne', smile.

Famous facial expression researcher and smile expert Paul Eckman (on whose research the TV program 'Lie to me', was based), says we can make ourselves feel better with a 'produced', or fake smile – if we move those muscles around our eyes as well – but it's hard to do. Only about 10 percent of people can do it in a 'fake' or 'produced' smile, without practice or training. That is, a smile that's not in response to one from another person ( or a smiley icon).

I've invented a step by step guide to raising your mood with a 'fake' smile. But remember this is my invention – it works for me and my clients so far, but your mileage may vary.

How to make yourself smile

Step 1. Think of something to smile about

No matter how blue you are, everyone can remember things that made them feel happy. Then there's songs that make you feel like smiling, or photographs of happy times. Make a list of your top ten 'smiley moments'.

Step 2. Raise your eyebrows

When I did some training with Dr Paul Eckman a few years ago – he showed that every smile is preceded by a raising of the eyebrows.

So to start your 'fake it till you make it' smile, raise your eyebrows.

Step 3. Smile!

Eyebrows up? Now smile.

Step 4. Twinkly eyes

You have to move the muscles around your eyes to get a genuine emotional response in your own body, so practice twinkly eyes. Pretend you're Santa Claus (Ho! Ho! Ho!), or that you're trying to make a baby smile (that's when we really turn on the Duchenne smile – we really want to get that baby to smile back at us). Focus on the muscles around you eyes and see if you can make them move. Raising your eyebrows, as in step 1, can help with this too.

To help with step 1 - Visualize your top ten 'smiley moments'.

I think it's fair to say that the value of visualisation has been generally recognised. Visualising pleasant events or peak experiences is a proven way of relaxing, but also of re-focusing away from gloomy thoughts as well as improving performance.

In this case I am suggesting visualizations that you think will help you to smile, whether they are real occurrences, or things in your imagination that you imagine will make you smile.

As an example, I have made up my own 'Top 10 things that make me smile'. As you read through them, it might give you ideas – or it might even help you to produce a smile (remember the twinkly eyes and the raised eyebrows).

Visualizing senses is also helpful – what would it/did it smell like – taste like – feel like etc.

My 'Top 10 things that make me smile'

  1. Looking out onto the bonsai trees on my deck
  2. Seeing sunlight or other light making rainbows in the diamonds in my wedding ring
  3. Sunshine in a blue sky on a cold winter's day
  4. Children playing/ dogs playing
  5. Water of any kind (waves, streams, rivers)
  6. Hearing an old song I used to love and haven't heard in a long time/ Hearing Vivaldi's Four Seasons
  7. A balmy evening after a hot day with a soft breeze and a cold drink
  8. Feeling bubbles on my tongue (champagne, mineral water)
  9. Looking at photographs of loved ones or travels
  10. Driving from Mornington to Sorrento along the coast of Port Phillip Bay on a sunny day

Now, what makes you smile? Remember it takes practice – so move those eye muscles and keep twinkling!