Smile and Others Smile with You: Health Benefits, Emotional Contagion, and Mimicry – by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, MAPP, is the founder of Flourish, Inc. She is the creator of and, a site through which users can browse research in the field of Positive Psychology and add to the database. Full bio.

Emiliya’s articles are here.

What if research were to show that people can effect enormous positive changes in their lives and in the lives of others using a tool they have with them at all times – their smiles? Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”


“How so?” you ask. Through a fascinating process called mimicry. Research conducted in Sweden exposed participants to images of faces while they monitored their facial muscles through electromyographs (EMGs) [1]. When exposed to happy faces, participants moved their zygomatic major muscle (used in smiling); when exposed to sad faces, participants moved their corrugator supercilii muscle (used in frowning). Participants did this even when the stimuli were hidden and rapidly presented. Participants were usually unaware that they even moved their muscles. Drs. Ursula Hess and Slyvie Blairy conducted a study where participants viewed video clips of a person expressing anger, sadness, disgust and happiness. Results showed that participants consistently mimicked each of those expressions [2]. These studies supports that when you smile at someone, their muscles maneuver into a smile as well.

This type of mimicry has strong evolutionary roots. Consider this study on expressing disgust. Using functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI), Philips et al. found that hearing the sound of vomit or smelling it activated some of the same areas of the brain as actually experiencing disgust [3]. Our ancestor’s ability to empathize with and mimic their neighbor’s reaction to the funky looking mushrooms prevented them from wanting to and physically feeling able to eat the funky mushrooms.

Emotional Contagion

This process is also known as emotional contagion[4]. That is, emotions are contagious. Feeling good is infectious, and so is feeling crummy. With this in mind, what change do you want trigger in the world? According to a researcher from Lund University in Sweden, mimicking a person’s bodily state or facial expression causes physical responses in the receiver’s body that are identical to those in the sender’s [1]. That is, when people activate muscle groups that link to specific emotions, their body will react as though they are really experiencing that emotion. If you wrinkle your nose and narrow your eyes (see image on the left) your body will release some adrenaline and your heart rate may speed up as though you are angry. If you mimic a smile by lifting the creases of your lips and squinting your eyes, your body will release serotonin, dopamine and other “feel-good” indicators. In the study by Hess and Blairy, participants reported feeling more happiness and sadness/depression relative to the video they were watching [2].

Health Benefits of Smiling

Therefore, when you smile at someone else, they smile and you are causing physiological changes within their bodies. Frequent smiling has many therapeutic and health benefits [5], particularly when the smile is a Duchenne smile [6]. According to Dr. Mark Stibich, smiling:

Boosts the immune system
Increases positive affect
Reduces stress
Lowers blood pressure
Enhances other people’s perception of you
Duchenne smiles are known as authentic smiles because they consistently co-occur with positive emotions [7]. Duchenne smiles are marked by wrinkles in the eyes that resemble crows feet and are associated with feeling excitement, amusement, interest, happiness and joy [8]. (See image on the right in which the top image is neutral, middle picture is non-genuine/mouth only, and the bottom picture is Duchenne/eyes and mouth engaged).

A well-known study of Duchenne smiles, conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated the impact of smiling on life satisfaction [9]. Researchers analyzed the yearbook pictures of 111 smiling women at age 21, fifty of which displayed authentic-Duchenne smiles. Participants expressing genuine positive emotions in their yearbook picture were more likely to be married and have higher well-being than their non-Duchenne smiling classmates. This study was replicated in Australia in 2006 and demonstrated similar results [10]. Duchenne smiles correlated with experiencing less negative emotions and increased sense of competence. (See picture of Guillaume Duchenne stimulating facial muscles with an induction coil.)

The eyes and lips are a powerful weapon that everyone is equipped with at birth. When used for good, this weapon can exert a significant amount of health and happiness on the smiler and recipient. So become the center of a positive change ripple. Squeeze your zigomatic major, squint your orbicularis oculi, and if you really want to get things flowing … expose your teeth.


[1] Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M., Elmehed, K. (2000). Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions. Psychological Science, 11, 1, 86-89.
[2] Hess, U. & Blairy, S. (2001). Facial mimicry and emotional contagion to dynamic emotional facial expressions and their influence on decoding accuracy. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 40, 129-141.

[3] Philips, M.L., Williams, L.M., Heining, M., Herba, C.M., Russell, T., Andrew, C., Bullmore, E.T., Brammer, M.J., Williams, S.C.R., Young, A.W., Gray, J.A. (2004). Differential neural responses to overt and covert presentations of facial expressions of fear and disgust. NeuroImage. 21, 1484-1496.

[4] Basch, MF. (1983). Empathic understanding: A review of the concept and some theoretical considerations. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 31,1, 101-126.

[5] Abel, MH, Hester, R. (2002). The therapeutic effects of smiling. In An empirical reflection on the smile. Mellen studies in psychology, Vol. 4. (pp. 217-253). Lewiston, NY, US: Edwin Mellen Press. xiii, 275 pp.

[6] Surakka, V., & Hietanen, J. K. (1998). Facial and emotional reactions to Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles. International Journal of Psychophysiology.29, 23–33.

[7] Papa, A, & Bonanno, GA. (2008). Smiling in the face of adversity: The interpersonal and intrapersonal functions of smiling.Emotion. 8,1, 1-12.

[8] Ekman P, Davidson, RJ, Fiesen, WV. (1990). Emotional expression and brain physiology: II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 58,2,342-353.

[9] Harker, L., & Keltner, D. (2001). Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 80, 112–124.

[10] Gladstone, GL, & Parker, GB. (2002). When you’re smiling, does the whole world smile for you?. Australasian Psychiatry. 10,2, 144-146.