When I was a teenager, I would get frustrated that everyone at church smiled so much. They smiled when they sang. They smiled when they listened to the sermon. And, especially, they smiled when they talked each other. It felt fake to me. I wanted deep, authentic emotions always. Now that I’m older, I think that there’s a time and a place for everything, and I appreciate the friendly, joyful atmosphere of church services. And all that smiling might actually be a good thing.
Smiling, it turns out, is a happy thing to do. Yes, smiling reflects good feelings. We smile when we’re happy. But it also goes the other way too. Smiling also creates good feelings. When we smile, we feel happier.
In a classic study, subjects made different vowel sounds. Some made the sound of the letter “e”. This contracted the smiling muscles. Others made the sound of the letter “u”. This contracted the frowning muscles. Afterward, the subjects who made the “e” sound felt happier.
In another study, subjects put (presumably clean) pens in their mouths. Some subjects held the pencil sideways, like a dog carrying a stick. This put their face into the shape of a smile. Other subjects held the pencil lengthwise, like my dad smoked cigars. This put their face into a frown shape. Afterward, the people with sideways pencils felt happier.
Smiling increases levels of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. So, if you want to feel happier, try smiling. I’ve been trying to do this more, and it works surprisingly well.
This smile-happy effect might be one reason that church-goers are happier people. Here’s a plot of happiness and church-going among GSS respondents. As you can see, frequent churchgoers are the most likely to report feeling “very happy” in general. Forty-one percent of them did, as compared to only 27% of the people who don’t attend church.
Why are churchgoers happier? This correlation is open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps going to church makes people happier. And, if that’s true, perhaps smiling play a role.
In church services, there are norms for which emotions we should express. Sometimes we are to be solemn and serious. Other times, though, we are to be joyful and friendly. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. We’re supposed to feel it, and display it to others. This can take the form of smiling.
In this way, churches serve as smile training. And smiling makes people feel happier. So, smiling might connect church with feeling happier. Except, of course, for angst-ridden teens.