By Ding Li

02 April 2014 - 16:23

Scientists have found that smiling creates a happiness feedback loop in our brains (image courtesy Mat Wright)
Scientists have found that smiling creates a happiness feedback loop in our brains ©

Mat Wright for the British Council

Ding Li is the winner of FameLab in Hong Kong, a competition designed to discover the world's most talented young science communicators. Here, she explains her winning presentation on the science of smiling.

Why did I choose the topic of smiles?

Some time ago, I came across a German study about the effect of Botox injections on people’s emotional experiences. The research confirmed Charles Darwin’s facial feedback hypothesis, which suggested that emotions could be altered by the facial muscles' activity. Since then, whenever I am stressed or upset, I cheer myself up by looking into the mirror and smile (sounds silly, I know), which is surprisingly useful! I figured it would be awesome to share this trick and the happiness of smiling in FameLab. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you 'the science of smiles'.

How smiling stimulates the production of endorphins

Have you ever tried to hold a pencil with your teeth? Researchers had proven that intentionally exercising your zygomaticus major muscle and orbicularis oculi muscle can actually make us feel better. How? It is like holding a pencil with your teeth, or simply, smiles!

So what is going on in our brains when we smile? Imagine we are in a pleasant situation, like bumping into an old friend on the metro. When our brains feel happy, endorphins are produced and neuronal signals are transmitted to your facial muscles to trigger a smile. 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.

Fake it till you make it! Yes, if you want to be happy, just smile. Thanks to the positive feedback loop of smiling, we can alter our brain's emotional processing pathway to feel happier with a simple smile.

Smiling is contagious

Does faking a smile sound hard to you? No worries. Just be with someone who smiles. A Swedish study found that it is indeed difficult to keep a long face when you look at people who are smiling at you. Smiling is just contagious! Seeing people smile stimulates our mirror neurones to suppress our facial muscle control, and trigger a smile. 'You smile, I smile' is actually a scientific fact!

Furthermore, smiling also brings health benefits, like reducing anxiety, as well as lowering your blood pressure and heart rate. The happiness level that a smile can bring to our brains is estimated as equivalent to that of having 2,000 bars of chocolate, or getting £16,000. Thus, we do not need chocolate and cash to be happy. A single smile will do!

Why I took part in the FameLab competition

Since I was small, I have always loved learning interesting facts and asking questions. It is rewarding to know how things work, and that is why I love science. I remember when I was in kindergarten; I went to a clinic and read a health leaflet about fever. It was the first time I realised fever is actually not a disease, but a symptom of disease! I told my parents, my cousins, my classmates, my teachers… everyone I knew. That feeling of sharing knowledge was undoubtedly good. Humans are the only known species in the world to gain pleasure from acquiring knowledge, and sharing knowledge is just like sharing joy with others.

Nature is so fascinating that I want to share everything I learn with people around me. FameLab has been a golden opportunity for me to share my happiness in learning interesting facts, and to meet others like me. This is why I recorded my audition video about the 'science of attraction' and joined FameLab.

How we all share the joy of scientific curiosity

Everyone is a scientist. Science allows us to use reasoning and to think critically. We are all experts in different fields: for example, one might question, research, hypothesise, experiment and analyse the best way to clean the house every day. I think that we don't need to read research literature to be scientists. By observing and learning about things that we find interesting, and by sharing knowledge with others, we can all be scientists.

In future, I will continue to spread my happiness, by sharing fascinating scientific facts and the rewarding feeling of sharing knowledge with others. Motivated by the power of curiosity, the joy of learning and the pleasure of sharing, I believe more and more of us will become experts in scientific fields, and revolutionise people’s way of living.

Watch Ding Li's winning presentation in Hong Kong this year.

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