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Anatomy of a Smile

Lips. Maybe teeth, maybe lipstick or facial hair. We know the “anatomy of a smile” but what makes you smile and what happens when you smile? That’s a more interesting question.

What Makes you Smile?

Sure, you can smile when you want to like if someone is taking your picture or you want to seem polite when someone tells a joke that didn’t land. But sometimes you smile without meaning to because of something that someone did or said or something that you thought about or remembered. Why is that?

Most of the things in your body carry out multiple functions. Sometimes, when a body part does the thing that we associate with it, it’s also doing things that we don’t associate with it. This is what is happening when we smile.

The brain processes and interprets situations but it is also in charge of controlling our actions, both deliberate actions and subconscious actions. As your brain processes certain thoughts and feelings, signals are relayed from the most basic part of your brain – which causes all involuntary actions – and from there to the muscles of the mouth resulting in a natural smile.

However, you can also smile on command. This is because higher parts of the brain allow you to make decisions, which are then passed on to the muscles of the mouth similar to how you can decide to do anything like wink or flex an arm.

That’s the boring part, though. What happens when you smile is much more interesting than what causes you to smile.

What Happens When you Smile?

We think of muscles receiving electrical signals from the nervous system in order to work. What we think of less often is the fact that muscles also send their own electrical signals back to the brain.

In the case of your arms or legs, this lets your brain know when you are carrying too much or bending something the wrong way so that you know to stop before you hurt yourself. They also cause the brain to release neurotransmitters called endorphins. Remember how most things in the body do more than one thing? That’s true for endorphins. Their main job is to allow you muscles to work a little bit better. They also make you feel good.

You can get a whole lot of endorphins from doing an activity like jogging or lifting weights, but you can also get a surprising amount from smiling – which takes less energy, less time, and con be done anywhere. That means that being happy makes you smile and smiling makes you happier – even if you deliberately smile when you aren’t happy.

When Shouldn’t you Smile?

Smiling is something that you can do deliberately but it is something that you should only do for yourself. Sometimes we smile because we are trying to hide what we are actually feeling. Hiding your feelings, especially feelings that are difficult to deal with like anger or sadness, is seldom a good idea. It can seem like it is easier to hide these feelings than to deal with them or make other people aware of them. However, being honest about feeling these things can help you and those around you to create an environment that fosters your emotional growth and safety. If something is upsetting you, you should be honest about it so that those around you can be respectful of your needs and try to make you feel more welcome. When your emotional needs are being met, respected and cared for, you are not only happier but more productive and better to other people. For these reasons, honesty about your emotional state can be awkward but it is also beneficial to everybody. Similarly, creating an emotionally healthy space can be difficult but is an investment in the health and wellbeing of everyone who occupies that space.

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