Raise a happy child!
Make smiling a normal part of your day with this book extract from Growing Up Happy
We might not know all the good that a simple smile can do but we now know enough to say that smiling can actively boost our happiness. It’s a twoway benefit: smiling improves our mood, but looking at smiling faces can also make us happier and more optimistic about the future. On top of that, smiling at others can make us seem more approachable and friendlier, giving us a social advantage too.
Common sense tells us that people who are happier smile more, but could it be that a smile is only the first part of a virtuous, happy cycle? Does a smile have to be genuine to benefit the mood of the giver or receiver? And how can we best nudge children towards simply smiling a little bit more?
Babies’ smiles are one of the earliest rewards of parenting. In return, most babies see a higher proportion of smiling faces during their earliest months than they ever will again. What effect does this reciprocal smiling have, and when do babies start to understand what a smile means? Of course babies cannot tell us directly what they see or understand. But by studying what they choose to pay attention to, we have learnt a lot about how the developing brain and visual system lets babies learn about the significance of smiling faces.
At just a few days old, newborn babies prefer to look at faces than anything else, and by three months old, they can tell the difference between happy, surprised and angry faces. This is quite remarkable given how immature the visual system is at birth, and reflects just how important a cue faces are during development. By four months, babies prefer to look at happy faces than faces with other expressions. At around five months, they start to understand that two different people’s happy faces are in some way similar, although they don’t seem to learn about other categories of emotion for a couple more months, perhaps because they see more happy faces than any other kind. This categorisation is the beginning of the path to understanding that “happy face” is a universal reaction to a particular kind of situation, teaching babies something about cause and effect in the world around them. By around one year, infants use other people’s smiles and other facial expressions as social reference cues, helping them interpret the emotional significance of events.
As language and other skills develop, smiles become just one of the child’s tools to understand the world and express his or her own feelings. Young children quickly become adept at understanding and expressing feelings through words, tone of voice, body language and gestures. Yet facial expressions, particularly smiles, seem to retain a uniquely important role. We process them incredibly quickly: studies measuring the electrical activity of the brain show that it takes less than one-
seventh of a second for the brain to respond to pictures of people smiling.
Facial expressions are also a key communication tool for our primate relatives, where the ability to express emotions vocally is limited. Primates “smile” using a facial muscle structure that is almost identical to ours, producing a bare-toothed grin that is used to communicate and strengthen social bonds in just the same way as our smile.
So how does smiling more promote happiness? One way is that, when it comes to smiling, faking it really does make you feel better. In one classic psychology experiment, participants were asked to rate how funny different cartoons were while either holding a pencil between their front teeth – which forces a smile-like facial expression – or between their lips, which prevented them from smiling. As you’ll have guessed, those with the pencil between their teeth found the cartoons funnier than those who were prevented from smiling. This is one example of a bigger truth: our psychological and cognitive experience of emotion is irrevocably mixed up with our physical, bodily experience.
Smiles are particularly important when dealing with kids because emotions are contagious. We often, unwittingly, mimic the facial expression and posture of someone we’re talking to. People who get along well – such as partners in happy marriages – are more often seen to do this, while those who find social interactions more difficult, such as people with autism, do it less. In fact re-enacting the physical expression of someone else’s emotion with our own body causes us to feel, psychologically, a little bit of their emotional state.
Recently it has been suggested that there
may be specific neurons in the front part of our brains that are directly responsible for the effect that watching another person’s action has on you. Mirror neurons are nerve cells which fire both when you perform a specific action and when you see another person performing that action. Although discovered originally in primates, direct recordings from wires inserted into the brains of people who were having surgery for epilepsy suggest that they also exist in humans. Mirror neurons may be important in many aspects of our social development, including empathy and bonding: we know, for example, that we like people more if we imitate them. Mirror neurons may also be one of the means by which children can learn by watching others rather than through direct experience – something that could be helpful or unhelpful, depending on the model they are learning from!
Feeling an emotion yourself and recognising it in another person’s expression are quite similar at the level of brain function. To demonstrate this, in one experiment participants underwent brain scanning while smelling a disgusting smell, and then again when watching a video of someone else expressing their disgust. The two experiences were found to activate much of the same neural circuitry. Other studies have shown that remembering an emotion activates much of the same system as experiencing it in the first place. This is probably why reliving emotional moments can be as intense as experiencing them for the first time (and why remembering happy times can be a considerable mood boost to kids and adults alike!).
Not all smiles denote happiness. Some people smile when they lie, when they flirt, are embarrassed or frightened. Paul Ekman, the psychologist who first documented how universal human facial expressions are, described seventeen additional types of smile. Faked smiles are relatively easy to detect, because they don’t usually activate the cheek raiser muscle that creates crow’s feet around the eyes. But even non-experts rate real smiles, and the people that give them, as more genuine, attractive and trustworthy.
So, smiling is definitely a good way to boost your and your kids’ day. And if you really don’t feel like smiling, it’s probably worth faking it from time to time. YB
Growing Up Happy:: Ten Proven Ways To Increase Your Child’s Happiness And Well-being by Alexia Barrable & Dr Jenny Barnett