“Smile though your heart is aching,” goes the first line of the song written by Charlie Chaplin, John Turner, and Geoffrey Parsons and first sung by Nat King Cole. After over 50 years, the song is still a favorite all over the world, and its advice remains sound. How sound seems to have been proven by a recent study published in the Association for Psychological Science journal Psychological Science.

“Age-old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” says co-author Tara Kraft. She and co-author Sarah Pressman are psychological scientists with the University of Kansas. “We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits.”

Kraft and Pressman devised a study with two phases—training and testing—and recruited 169 college students to participate.

During the first phase, participants were divided into three groups and trained to hold chopsticks in their mouths in a way that would engage their facial muscles so that they would a neutral facial expression, a standard smile (meaning one that only uses the muscles around the mouth), and or a genuine or Duchenne smile (which uses muscles around the mouth and eyes). The researchers only instructed half of the members of the latter groups to actually smile; the chopsticks forced people to smile regardless of whether they did it on purpose.

Come the second phase, participants were made to do multitasking activities designed to promote feelings of stress while they held the chopsticks in their mouths as they had been trained. Throughout the test, researchers checked their heart rates and asked them how stressed out they felt.

The results of the study showed that participants who had been told to smile ended up with lower heart rates after recovering from the stressful activities they were made to do than those who held neutral expressions. This was especially true for the participants in the group trained for genuine smiles. Even those who weren’t told to smile showed a small advantage over those with neutral expressions. This indicates that smiling when stressed may help make your body’s response less intense.

So, Pressman says, “The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!”

(Photo by Vassilena Valchanova via Flickr Creative Commons)

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