Do you remember the 1993 hit movie "Grumpy Old Men"? It starred Jack Lemmon, who was 68 at the time, and Walter Matthau, who was 73. The gist of the comedy is that older people are almost inevitably in a bad mood, and because of their advanced age they have essentially forgotten how to laugh or smile. A more recent example of this ageist stereotype is the 2009 animated movie "Up." The main character, retiree Carl Fredericksen, was voiced by then-80-year-old Ed Asner, and Carl was definitely in a bad, bad, very grumpy mood for much of the movie.
Obviously, I strongly disagree with this premise. Instead, I prefer the arguments proposed in 1872 by Charles Darwin and given additional credence by William James in 1884. They both believed that there is a direct link between our facial expressions and how we feel. More recently, Amy Cuddy, Harvard professor, TED Talk superstar and author of the best-selling book "Presence," has suggested that our bodies (i.e. our faces) impact our mood rather than the other way around. What a relief that, according to Darwin, James and Cuddy, we have the ability to affect the state of our emotions no matter our age.
For the past 10 years, psychologists and researchers have spent a lot of time focusing on the physiology of facial expressions and their impact on our emotions. In one study, getting subjects to imitate a given emotional expression "with the muscles of their faces" actually created that precise emotional state. As certain expressions stimulate facial muscles to relax or tighten, they raise or lower the temperature of the blood that flows into the brain and affect the parts of the brain that regulate or stimulate emotion. Obviously, this doesn't mean that merely forcing ourselves to smile can override a bout of serious depression. But it does seem to indicate that our facial expressions can potentially dilute negative feelings.
A leading proponent of this theory was Dr. Robert Zajonc, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, who argued that "facial action leads to changes in mood." An article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that psychologists at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, showed that putting facial muscles typical of a particular emotion produces that feeling. Whether the directed expression was of anger, disgust, fear or sadness, test subjects reported feeling the way they had moved their faces.
And in another study, German researchers found that merely clenching a pen or pencil in our teeth, which imitates a smile, almost automatically improves mood. Additionally, when we mimic different emotional expressions, our bodies trigger and experience changes in heartbeat and breath rate.
Several years ago, a now-disputed theory claimed that young children instinctively laugh several hundred times a day, while adults usually laugh fewer than 20. Obviously, laughter (just like smiling) has plenty of benefits. Researchers have claimed that a big belly laugh can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, trigger the release of endorphins (the body's natural painkillers) and boost the immune system. The technical explanation for all of this positivity is that laughter apparently raises levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting gamma-interferon and B-cells. These produce disease-destroying antibodies, which help us heal. No wonder so many people for so many years have believed that laughter is the best medicine.
There is a movement of so-called laughter clubs in India, in which people gather together for the sole purpose of laughing out loud as a group. And since laughter, like yawning, appears to be a contagious expression, it's super easy for people to laugh together. In fact, the mere act of thinking about laughing or smiling can be emotionally and physically beneficial.
A particular British study really got my attention. It suggested that smiling can stimulate the brain-reward mechanism to an even greater degree than chocolate, a universally accepted source of pleasure. One big smile can generate as much positive brain stimulation as up to 2,000 chocolate bars!
That's what I call a calorie-free way to effortlessly banish the blahs!
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.