Positive Aging: The Benefits of a Smile

Marilyn Murray Willison on

I was intrigued when I learned that British researchers had followed 138 people ranging from 65 to 85 years old who received flu vaccines back in 2014-15 to measure the shots' effectiveness. The study, which appeared in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, recorded factors like diet, mood, negative thoughts, sleep patterns, stress and other measures of physical and psychological health before, during and after they were injected. The researchers then tested the antibody response to the vaccine by taking blood samples at four and sixteen weeks after the subjects received the vaccine.

According to Kavita Vedhara, professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham and senior author of the study, "We have known since 1996 that negative moods like stress affect how well vaccines work." Additionally, of all influences, "how you're feeling on the day you're vaccinated may be among the more important." The study concluded that older people who are in a good or upbeat mood when they get their flu injection have a better (i.e., more effective) immune response.

Evidently, being in a good mood can turbocharge your immune system -- and its ability to react -- because when you are in a good mood, your cortisol (a hormone that can suppress your immune system) level automatically declines. Also, being in a good mood affects three other factors that can boost immunity: diet, exercise level and sleep.

For decades, motivational speakers and therapists have urged us to smile even if we are not in a good mood, because the facial muscles can trigger positive feelings. Many cynics debunked the "act as if" or "fake it till you make it" concept as being a form of wishful positive thinking, but evidence that a smile can actually have physiological benefits -- even ones beyond the flu vaccine -- is growing.

A study that appeared in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise journal highlighted research from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales focused on the effect of facial expressions on athletic performance. The researchers had study volunteers wear a facial mask that could measure respiration rates while running on a treadmill until they reached exhaustion. As the athletes ran, the scientists would ask them for feedback regarding how they felt and what techniques they were using to overcome any discomfort they were feeling.

At a later date, they asked the volunteers to complete four separate six-minute running sessions. During each they were asked to do one of the following:

--Smile continuously but sincerely.



--Relax their upper body using the mental image of gently holding a potato chip between their fingers.

--Use their normal mental technique for completing a run.

What the researchers discovered was that the runners who smiled had an almost 3 percent increase in efficiency, even though many of them found it challenging to smile for all six minutes. This led the researches to conclude that on-and-off smiling can be an effective way to help your body complete a challenging physical task.


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 To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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