When little can be done to help make stressful experiences more tolerable, age-old adages encourage us to just “grin and bear it.” Although smiling might appear too simple to be an effective solution, new research suggests that smiling through stressful situations does have a beneficial impact on physical health.
In our recently published study, participants’ heart functioning was monitored while they completed a series of stressful tasks. Throughout the tasks, participants, who were naïve to the purpose of the study, were asked to place a set of chopsticks in their mouths, which produced either 1) a genuine smile, activating muscle groups in the cheek and around the eye; 2) a standard smile, activating muscle groups in the cheek only; or 3) a neutral expression.
The first stressful task required participants to trace a star with their non-dominant hand while only being able to view a mirror image of the star. They received negative auditory feedback (i.e. a jarring BUZZ!) if they traced outside the lines and reported this task to be incredibly frustrating. The second stressful task simulated a brief painful experience by requiring participants to place a hand in a bucket of ice water for one minute.
While all participants’ showed increased heart rate throughout these stressful experiences, results indicated that those who smiled during the tasks had significantly faster cardiovascular stress recovery after the tasks than individuals who did not smile, which means that their heart rate returned to normal, baseline levels faster after the stressor was over. Cardiovascular stress recovery is an indicator of how long the physiological effects of the stressor endure; thus, faster recovery indicates that the stressful events did not have as much of a lasting impact on smilers as they did on those with a neutral expression.
Furthermore, although it may seem difficult to “fake” a smile under stress when you don’t feel naturally joyful, it may not necessarily be phony the longer you hold your facial muscles in that position. According to the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, we not only smile because we’re happy but the actual activation of the muscles involved in smiling can have an impact on mood, making us happier. Our results confirmed this to be true as well, with smilers maintaining a positive mood throughout the stressful tasks better than the neutral group.
These findings are the first to suggest that smiling through brief stressors, especially painful or frustrating experiences, may help “undo” the harmful effects of the body’s stress response on your heart. In other words, “grin and bear it!” It may be one of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective strategies to manage the curves life throws your way.
About Tara Kraft
Tara Kraft, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Kansas.
Her research interests include understanding resilience to minor and major stressors and how positive psychological factors may help.
 Kraft TL, & Pressman SD (2012). Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychological science, 23 (11), 1372-8 PMID: 23012270