Home All Smile and Others Smile with You: Health Benefits, Emotional Contagion, and Mimicry

Smile and Others Smile with You: Health Benefits, Emotional Contagion, and Mimicry

written by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya 27 September 2008

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, MAPP '07, is the founder of Flourish, an organization dedicated to using research based tools to enable individuals and organizations to flourish. Emiliya fuses the best of Eastern philosophy with Western science to provide people with holistic tools to increase their happiness, well-being, and sense of flourishing. 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 by Dimberg in Sweden exposed participants to images of faces while they monitored their facial muscles through electromyographs (EMGs).

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. 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 and colleagues found that hearing the sound of vomit or smelling it activated some of the same areas of the brain as actually experiencing disgust. 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 according to Basch and others. 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. 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.

Health Benefits of SmilingEmiliya

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 according to Abel and colleagues, particularly when the smile is a Duchenne smile according to Surakka and Hietanen.

According to Dr. Mark Stibich, smiling:

  1. Boosts the immune system
  2. Increases positive affect
  3. Reduces stress
  4. Lowers blood pressure
  5. Enhances other people’s perception of you

Duchenne Smiles

Duchenne smiles are known as authentic smiles because they consistently co-occur with positive emotions. Duchenne smiles are marked by wrinkles in the eyes that resemble crows feet and are associated with feeling excitement, amusement, interest, happiness and joy, according to Ekman and colleagues. (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 by Gladstone and Parker, demonstrating similar results.

Duchenne Smile


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.



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.

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

Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M., Elmehed, K. (2000). Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions. Psychological Science, 11, 1, 86-89.

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

Ekman, P. & Rosenberg, E. L. (Eds.) (2005). What the Face Reveals: Basic and Applied Studies of Spontaneous Expression Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) (Series in Affective Science), 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press. Paperback edition coming soon.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

Zygomaticus major muscle from Wikimedia
Emiliya self-images,
Duchenne, and facial muscles.

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Jeff 27 September 2008 - 9:20 am

Emotions are catchy. I’ve just started a new teaching position serving students with special needs. Some of these children have profound challenges and cannot speak. Yet the smile seems universal. I have one child in class who often has angry outbursts. Sometimes a smile can change him for the better. I like to use a calm, low voice up close and personal to influence irate young ones.
The authenticity of your overall demeanor: your smile, posture, and tone of voice can predict how well your persuasion works. Kids can smell a fake a mile away.

Empathy makes it easier to get emotional distance in a crisis. If I can empathize with my student I’m in a better position to help. I try to think of the various stressors that may come to bear on the child.

Some are homeless, some are spoiled rotten but neglected, some have been abused, some are socially awkward. Maybe one had a break-up or I said something that stuck them the wrong way. Empathy sets the stage for helping.

Wayne Jencke 27 September 2008 - 3:30 pm

Two pieces of research spring to mind.

1. participants filled a mood questionnaire out on a desk where you could adjust the desk height. When people completed the questionnaire in a slumped state (lower desk height) they reported a less positive mood state when compared to more upright posture(higher desk height). My guess is that this is one of the reasons yoga boosts mood state

2. People put a pencil in their mouth – lengthwise (like swallowing a pencil) which simulated a pout and crosswise which simulated a smile and completed a mood questionnaire. The crosswise position resulted in ore positive mood state.

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya 28 September 2008 - 12:13 am

Hey Wayne,
Thanks for pointing out these two studies. I was not aware of the one on desk height, will look it up. The study that you refer to with pencils is being applied to in businesses. There was a story about a Japanese company in the documentary The Human Face (BBC with John Cleese). The Japanese are known for their neutral facial expressions, part of which stems out of social necessity. However, businesses caught on to the fact that their employees who delt with Westerners sold much more when they smiled. So they conduct smile workshops where they put pencils are chop sticks between there teeth to get those muslces in shape for lots of smiling!

Gary Laffs 28 September 2008 - 7:32 am

Almost 40 years ago:

If you smile at me you know I will understand
Cause that is something everybody everywhere does
In the same language
I can see by your coat my friend that you’re from the other side
There’s just one thing I got to know
Can you tell me please who won
You must try some of my purple berries
I been eating them for six or seven weeks now
Haven’t got sick once
Probably keep us both alive
Wooden ships on the water very free and easy
Easy you know the way it’s supposed to be
Silver people on the shoreline leave us be
Very free and easy
Sail away where the mornin sun goes high
Sail away where the wind blows sweet and young birds fly
Take a sister THEN by her hand
Lead her far from this barren land
Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cry and
Stare as all you human feelings die
We are leaving
You don’t need us
Go and take a sister by her hand
Lead her far from this foreign land
Somewhere where we might laugh again
We are leaving
You don’t need us
Sailing ships on the water very free and easy
Easy you know the way it’s supposed to be
Silver people on the shoreline leave us be
Very free
And gone

Gary Laffs 28 September 2008 - 7:49 am


Check out, and stay with it to the very end; you’ll be glad


carolann 29 September 2008 - 2:06 am

This is so FABULOUS! Thank you so much!!!!!!


melanie 29 September 2008 - 4:25 pm


I loved this article! This subject fascinates me and I was so pleased to see such a thorough presentation of such an important topic. A very well presented compilation of information! I want to link this to my website!
Thank you for all the effort you put into this piece.

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya 2 October 2008 - 12:09 am

Thank you for the positive feedback everyone.

Gary, Thanks for the links.

Melanie, Feel free to e-mail me (mail@emiliya.com) if you’d like to discuss more body language/ mind-body connection stuff. I’m passionate about this topic.

Warm regards,

Kirsten Cronlund 4 October 2008 - 7:21 am


I am also fascinated by the role of facial expressions. I want to learn more about what Paul Ekman has found about the universality of expressions.

On an anecdotal note, one trick I learned a couple years ago from a good friend is to deliberately put a smile on my face when approaching someone I don’t know or with whom the conversation could potentially be contentious (like a sales clerk when needing to request a special favor). It has not been my automatic inclination, but since my conversation with my friend I try to remember to deliberately do it as often as I can. I think the reason why this works so well for me (and it does!) is because the simple reminder to myself to smile also reminds me that I am approaching another human being, rather than a problem to be solved. It puts me in a joining state of mind and triggers empathy in me for what the other person might be experiencing.

Thanks for the great article, Emiliya.


Faith Jackson 8 October 2008 - 10:06 am

Beautiful article, Emilya. I remembered how you talked about Positive Psychology when we met at Kripalu last spring and googled it recently. I was glad to find this lovely article e-mail, and even more pleased to see you as the author of the second article I received!

Hope you are well.

Faith Jackson 8 October 2008 - 10:08 am

Another thought. . .

I bet that people with Borderline Personality Disorder (as well as certain other mental/emotional health issues) deviate from the pattern of consistently mimicing others’ emotions. I would further guess that teaching these people to mimic others’ emotions might form a useful part of treatment. Too bad I’m not a psychology researcher! I’ll just have to keep experimenting on myself!


John Darling 19 November 2008 - 12:54 am

I am a dentist working on behavioral change for bruxism. I am aware of lots of references to smiling and the release of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine, with a decrease in adrenalin and stress chemistry but am unable to locate the actual studies that support the claims. It makes all kinds of sense, but I am dealing with very evidence based professionals that will need to have good scientific studies to support any claims made. Can you help me locate the research and/or researchers?

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya 22 February 2009 - 9:40 am

Hi John,
Email me at mail@emiliya.com and I will send you the articles I have.

Warm wishes,

Maheen 4 June 2010 - 8:12 pm

Hey Emiliya,

This is an amazing and a very beneficial article. And I think that everyone should know about all this you have discussed. I never knew about the “Duchenne Smile” but now I do know about it 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information with us. May God bless you!!!


Emily 8 November 2010 - 7:48 pm

I really enjoyedthis article. I am actually writing a persuasive speech in my class on the impace of a smile and the idea of “be the change you want to see in the world.” This article has definitely helped with ideas. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing!


GnXd 11 November 2010 - 8:37 pm

@Emiliya, This article has really helped my research. Thank you.
@Everyone great comments
@Emily, I too am working on a persuasive speech, but on a positive attitude : )

gailene hooper 3 January 2011 - 9:08 am

I am a librarian and would like to know where to look for the studies on endorphins, seratonin and smiling. Could you send me in the right direction?
Thank you

Dibin k thomas 14 October 2012 - 12:17 am


I am a medical student from India.
I would like to know whether any muscles other than zygomaticus major and orbicularis occuli is involved (even minor action) in tipical duchenne smile.

Also, I have seen many articles siteing that smiling is not a good thing for manliness, in your article also, you have reffered about study conducted in university of california among women, but nothing about men who smiles. What is your opinion about this, does smiling brings same benifit in both men and women? Or is it applicable only (or more) for women?

Embrace Your Crow's Feet and Smile - FunLifeTwists 20 April 2020 - 3:34 pm

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