Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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Happiness begins in the brain. Do something well, receive a treat or an affection or find a joke funny, and your reward system takes care of making the regions of the brain that take care of automatic movements – those we make without having to think – put a beautiful smile on your face. If it’s genuine, these regions of the brain try to raise the corners of the mouth, relax the eyebrows and, most importantly, slightly tighten the eyelids. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is also activated, the part of the brain that registers when something good happens – such as the cause of the smile.

The forced smile, the one we give the camera so often, is different. It comes from regions of the brain that control voluntary movements, and does not cause activation of the OFC. Therefore, it doesn’t tell the rest of the brain that something particularly good has happened. In other words: you may be smiling on the outside, but your brain knows you’re not smiling on the inside.

The amazing thing is that just slapping a smile on your face can be enough to make you feel good. The trick works even if you instruct an actor to build a smile, muscle by muscle. The more actors learn to master the muscle that surrounds the eyelids, adopting an expression of genuine happiness, the more their body begins to prepare for happiness, giving them a well-being that they can’t explain. Neuroscience, however, explains it: recent work has shown that a genuine smile is enough to activate the insula cortex, the region of the brain that gives us subjective sensations such as well-being.

Seeing someone smile also works. A smile on the face of someone you’re talking to triggers the same areas of the brain responsible for your own smile, including the insula and the OFC. It’s as if seeing someone smile is enough to make you feel like smiling inside too. Since your brain repeats inside the smile it sees outside, the other person’s well-being is contagious. Happiness generates happiness: it passes from one brain to the next through smiles.

And if all this isn’t enough for you to start smiling right now, here’s one more reason: the OFC, which is triggered automatically when we see a beautiful person (ugly won’t do!), becomes even more active when that person smiles. Smiling is therefore the fastest, cheapest and most democratic beauty treatment that nature – and neuroscience – has ever invented…

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on August 10th, 2006.

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