This real smile is called a "Duchenne smile" named after the scientist who first separated the "mouth corners only smile" (fake), from the one that includes the "eye sockets" (real). Sometimes we hear something that makes us smile, or see something or someone that makes us smile, or just mirror back a smile, since smiling is contagious. Regardless of the source, whenever we genuinely smile, research has demonstrated a specific neurological response, which has been linked to improved health, reduced stress, increased happiness, longevity, and makes us more attractive.
Smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that allow neurons to communicate and releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin (all the good stuff!!). Smiling stimulates our brain's reward mechanisms so strongly - a study in the UK concluded that one smile could provide the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 chocolate bars (Note: I am not convinced of this statistic and would argue it may depend on the quality of the chocolate ... just sayin'). Nonetheless, smiling unequivocally relaxes your body, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and serves as a natural pain reliever.
You've probably heard me say, "Neurons that fire together, wire together" and smiling is no exception. The more you smile, the more you are training and rewiring your brain to break the brain's natural tendency towards negativity. When you feel more positive, the more creative and productive you will be and some researchers go so far as to claim that this could save your life! Sondra Barrett asserts in her book, Secrets of Your Cells, that tension relief - including through smiling - allows your cells to let go of their rigidity and heal. So even if "being happy" is out of the question when you are sleep deprived, on a hard rotation, or have had a long and stressful day ... try to find something that will briefly activate your zygomatic major and orbicularis oculi muscles. (Eating chocolate does that for me ... maybe that is a two for one?).
The other reason I am smiling is that we are launching a full longitudinal physician wellness curriculum starting this year! Starting with intern year, there will now be protected time for provider wellness and medical humanities sessions each month during the Tuesday afternoon didactics! We will still have Friday afternoon provider wellness sessions during PAL rotations as well. Thanks to all the residents for their feedback and ongoing support as we built this curriculum across all PGY years. It would not have happened without you!! And I say that with a BIG DUCHENNE SMILE.
For an 8-minute summary of the research on the power of smiling, click here.