I Think My Grandma Was Wrong!
The simple expression of a smile or frown affects your mental health. Here’s how to find your reasons to smile
By Quentin Steen, Representative
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told that we use more muscles to frown than smile. If memory serves me well, it was my grandma, Edith Steen, who first referenced this factoid during one of her famous back scratches (which I’ve never been able to duplicate).
It’s been with me ever since, but I think my grandma was wrong. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find much proof behind this old saying.
Scientists have studied the muscles needed for both facial expressions. According to my research, to muster a small smile generally uses 10 muscles; a slight frown uses 6. An average smile uses 12 while a frown uses 11.
But we humans tend to smile a lot, making these muscles stronger. A frown may be slightly more effort to produce because we aren’t used to using these muscles.
I’m willing to bet there are those of you reading this who have now jumped onto the web to research the data themselves. Regardless of what your research yields on the topic, what’s important to realize is how even the simple expression of a smile or frown affects your mental health.
Research suggests that people tend to greet smiles with smiles of their own, whereas frowns only draw return frowns about half the time. Not only that but smiles work in both directions.
Just as happiness can make you smile, studies have shown that thanks to a quirk of the autonomic nervous system, smiling can make you happy. Unfortunately, the same holds true for expressions of sadness and distress.
Both phenomena relate to mirror neurons—brain cells that spark up both when we observe an action, such as a smile, and when we take part in it.
Despite the chaos, there is always a reason to smile. What’s yours? Need some help?
S – Seek out things that make you smile. Make a note of them in a way that you’re reminded on a regular basis (e.g., fridge, journal, social media).
M – Mimic what makes you smile. As I mentioned in a previous Mental Heath Moment (My Postpandemic Peeps), to a large extent, you are shaped by who and what you surround yourself with.
I – Invest in what makes you smile. Surround yourself with those people, places, and situations that bring a smile to your face. Life is too short not to.
L – Look for the opportunity to make others smile. It’s incredible how the simple gesture of a smile can change a conversation around or open the human heart.
E – Express your gratitude for them. The daily expression of gratitude is often underestimated. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be intentional about this. Let others know that you are grateful for them and why, especially at the moment.
Next time you feel blue, try a smile. Not only will people smile back, but you’ll trick your brain into feeling a little happier, too.
Quentin Steen is a certified mental health first aid instructor for the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Get your BRAIN right and your MIND will follow!
4 Mental Health Resources to Help You During the Pandemic
- If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, CLAC has a number of resources and interactive tools available to help you at My Health and Wellness.
- Stronger Minds features videos and quick reads from mental health experts, activities to help you gain resilience, and ask-an-expert videos in response to questions.
- WellCan offers free well-being resources to help Canadians develop coping strategies and build resilience to help deal with uncertainty, mental health, and substance abuse concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support provides free online resources, tools, apps, and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals.