If you've ever been inclined to carry a sour face in public, there's a good chance you've heard the clichéd admonition that it "takes more effort to frown than it does to smile." The question of whether smiling or frowning takes more effort is neither settled nor simple. Like a number of other deep questions, it has many plausible answers, including, "It depends." It depends on a lot of things, including why you are smiling and the size of the smile. Is it subtle, like the Mona Lisa, or sinister, like the Cheshire Cat?
According to David H. Song, MD, FACS, a plastic surgeon and expert in facial reconstruction, from a purely factual perspective, a zygomatic smile -- meaning a genuine or naturally-occurring smile -- requires 12 primary muscles. They pull up the corners of the mouth, the lip and nose, and they cause the eyes to crinkle. On the other hand, he identifies 11 muscles necessary for frowning [source: The Straight Dope].
Dr. Song is not suggesting frowning is easier. In fact, because we smile more often, he believes using these 12 muscles to produce a genuine smile is more effortless than frowning. The muscles are in better shape. If, however, you are just going for the appearance of joy and happiness (think beauty pageant contestant), only two main muscles are necessary -- those that pull the corners of the mouth to the side.
It's not surprising that smiling and laughing come easily to someone who is relaxed, but did you know smiling and laughing, even if forced, can result in stress relief? Steve Wilson, a university-educated psychologist and self-taught joyologist, promotes laughter therapy as a way to reduce stress [source: NPR]. It's no joke that the brain cannot distinguish between real or fake smiling and laughing, so when it perceives happiness, muscle tension is released, improving digestion, blood flow and heart rate. The results are so profound that the Pentagon is using this therapy with families whose loved ones are deployed overseas.
A genuine smile is not only good for the person doing it, but also for those who see it and smile in response, and it takes little effort. Next to yawning, smiling is the most contagious facial expression [source: Universal Tao]. However a smile arrives upon your face, having it there will improve your look and your outlook.
There's no doubt that smiling feels more relaxing than frowning. But although there's a popular idea that frowning involves more facial muscles than smiling, the actual work our muscles do depends on the kind of smile on your face. For example, the wide smile you make when meeting a good friend is very different from the closed, tight smile you show someone who's just given you an order.
Whether done unconsciously or on purpose, our facial expressions give out all kinds of signals about our state of mind. Likewise, we use different sets of facial muscles to show these subtle or obvious emotional signals, so it's really hard to say which takes more effort.
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