There is quite a bit of research to suggest that smiling increases our positive emotion. (Just google "effects of smiling on mental health" and you'll find a slew of information). Much of this research, just to summarize it briefly, shows that when we smile, we perceive less pain and more enjoyment or happiness. In my favorite of these studies, participants in two groups were each given a vignette to read that had no inherent "feeling" attached to it. One of the groups read the vignette with a pen held perpendicularly (causing the muscles in the face to "frown" or be "neutral") and the other group read the vignette with a pen held horizontally in their mouths (causing the muscles in the face to "smile"). The smiling group attributed positive feelings to the vignette while the frowning group did not. (I am searching for the names of the researchers and when I find them I'll edit them in here.)
In Marsha Linehan's work on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, she discusses a "half-smile". The half-smile is not an overly "cheesy" smile but more akin to that of the Mona Lisa. It's a barely perceptible elevation of the corners of the mouth. Unlike a "forced" or "fake" smile, the half-smile may be viewed by someone else as nothing out of the ordinary. The effect on the half-smiler, however, may be quite positive. Even though others may not notice this subtle difference, the smiler may notice feeling happier or less upset about things going on around them.
I have tried this technique personally and have found that it is quite effective. Here are two personal examples. My daughter's teacher called me in for a parent-teacher conference. I knew this wasn't going to be good. I purposely decided I would try to keep a half-smile on my face throughout the conference. Honestly, I found that I heard the teacher's comments more clearly, didn't automatically jump to worst-case scenarios, and overall, felt okay at the end of the conference, even though I expected to feel like a terrible mother and angry at my daughter! A second example of when I tried this technique was on my most-recent drive from my home in Southern California up to the Bay Area--a good six hour drive assuming traffic is not horrible. I really dislike this drive--its tedious. But on this last trip, I tried holding a half-smile. It helped! It didn't feel nearly as boring and long as it usually does.
The interesting thing about half-smiling is that it really requires continued concentration. If you're anything like me, I get my half-smile on and approximately 30 seconds later, I've forgotten to hold the smile and I have to put it back on. It becomes a good lesson in mindfulness (a future Skill of the Month). It gives you something to do or focus on when negative or intrusive thoughts come into your consciousness, keeping you awake at night; and it may give your emotions a boost.
How to do a Half-Smile
Relax your face and shoulders as much as possible. Slightly elevate the corners of your mouth. That's it! I find it helpful to try to mimic the Mona Lisa's smile, so you might try looking at this painting to help you get your half-smile in place.
When to do a Half-Smile
Anytime! At first, its good to practice this skill (just like any other skill, it requires practice!) at times when you're not really "needing" it. Try holding a half-smile while listening to a favorite piece of music, observing someting in nature, or walking. As you become more proficient at holding onto your half-smile, challenge yourself to do it in more difficult situations: during a parent-teacher conference, while engaging in relatively unpleasant activities like waiting in line or at the doctor's office, or when watching the evening news. Finally, as you become better and better at it, see if you can hold a half-smile during arguments or interactions with highly negative or reactive people, while thinking about people that you don't like or listening to very sad music or music that you don't like!
The wonderful thing about the half-smile is that it's a highly-portable, free skill you can use anywhere at any time. Try it today!