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The Science of Happiness

A daily dose of happiness by Cam Vuksinich

What do laughter and exercise have in common? They both boost your health! The good news is you don’t need to break a sweat in order to get a good laugh. When we laugh, we exhale. The bigger the laugh, the greater the exhalation. This sort of deep breathing is a powerful anti-stress technique, allowing the lungs to better exchange oxygen. When you follow deep exhalation with the sort of inhalation brought in through a big belly laugh, the heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms.

Smiling and Emotions

How about smiling? It turns out that something as simple as a smile, even if we fake it, has lasting health benefits! In 1989, psychologist Robert Zajonc published a significant study on the emotional effects of smiling. He asked subjects to repeat the vowel sounds for a long ‘e’, which mimics a smile, as well as a long ‘u’, whose sound mimics a pout. Subjects reported feeling good after the long ‘e’ sounds but bad after the long ‘u.’ In other studies, subjects were asked to make a positive or negative expression by holding a chopstick in their mouth -- lengthwise to make a smile or protruding like a sipping straw to make a pout. According to Dr. Zajonc’s hypothesis, the facial changes involved in smiling have direct effects on certain brain activities associated with happiness. The truth is, our brains contain a smile factory and, given the myriad of health benefits of one simple smile, it’s time to get the assembly line rolling.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin proposed that facial expressions didn’t only reflect emotions, but also caused them. Crazy as it might seem, our brain listens to our face. If we smile, our brain thinks ‘happy.’ If we frown, our brain thinks ‘angry’. Fast-forward to the 1980’s, where one study demonstrated that both the core body temperature and the heart rate rose in subjects who contorted their faces to demonstrate fear. Research suggests that a cooler brain creates good emotions and a warmer brain produces negative emotions, giving more meaning to the phrases ‘cool headed’ and ‘hot head.’ Paul Ekman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco, has studied facial expressions for over 40 years and has taught himself to flex each of his 43 facial muscles individually, including wiggling his ears one at a time. Though we may not have achieved his level of expertise, we can still flash a winning smile and take charge of our health.

It’s nearly impossible to smile and be angry. Try it! Smile the biggest smile your face can hold and try to make an angry comment. Our brains can’t manage the confusing message. Either our face has to change, or the message does. Another advocate of smiling is Dr. Sarah Pressman, an assistant psychology professor at University of California, Irvine. Pressman says, “We smile when we don’t feel threatened. Over time, that message evolved so the muscle activity involved in a smile sends a message to the brain signaling safety. Dr. Pressman is currently researching how smiling affects certain stress hormones, such as cortisol, and oxytocin, called the trust hormone.

Other studies suggest that the intensity of a smile is an important indicator of overall happiness and longevity. Experts have recognized two distinct smiles: the ‘Pan Am’ smile and the ‘Duchenne’ smile. The former, also known as the social smile, activates only the muscles around the mouth while the ‘Duchenne’ smile, named for the 19th century neurologist who first described it, also activates the muscles around the eyes and mouth. Business executives and people preparing for job interviews often hire body-language experts to train them to smile more effectively. A less expensive alternative? Practice! Happy Appy makes that a whole lot easier!

The Importance of Optimism

Happiness is not just about smiles and giggles. It’s also about optimism. Ed Diener, University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology and a senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, says “While happiness might not by itself prevent or cure disease, the evidence that positive emotions and enjoyment of life contribute to better health and a longer lifespan is stronger than the data linking obesity to reduced longevity. Current health recommendations focus on four things: avoid obesity, eat right, don’t smoke and exercise. It may be time to add ‘be happy’…to the list.” Laura Kubzansky, a Harvard School of Public Health associate professor of society, human development and health, is a leader in in this research. According to a HSPH newsletter, a 2007 study that followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years found that emotional vitality – a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Kubzansky says, “Everyone needs to find a way to be in the moment; to find a restorative state that allows them to put down their burdens.”

Doing Good

Finally, in one of the more interesting studies, researchers drew blood samples from 80 healthy adults who were assessed for hedonic, the type of happiness that comes from consuming goods and self-gratification vs. eudaimonic, happiness derived from a deep sense of purpose and meaning. They studied the implications of hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing through 21,000 genes. This research, spanning a decade, was conducted by Professor Stephen Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and Barbara L. Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina. Dr. Cole says, “Both [groups] seemed to have the same high levels of positive emotion. However their genome responded very differently. What this study tells us it that doing good vs. feeling good have very different effects on the human genome.” Though this study is complicated, the message is simple: reaching out to help someone in need, or simply sharing a smile, can provide an additional dose of healthy in your daily happy plan.

No matter where you live, the “State of Happiness” can be your primary residence. Happiness isn’t something that happens to us, it happens through us. Happiness is a choice. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Only 10% or so of the variations in people’s reports of happiness can be explained by difference in their circumstances. It appears that the bulk of what determines happiness is due to personality and - more importantly – thoughts and behaviors.” Yes, you can learn to be happy!

What are the secrets to being happy?

How can you get started? It’s simple. Smile! Buy a pair of chopsticks, share one with a friend and “find the funny.”

People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.Abraham Lincoln

Cam Vuksinich is a life coach and counselor, and is our Happy consultant. Learn more about Cam on her website.


Frequently Asked Questions about Happy Appy

What’s the difference between the Free version and the Premium version – besides 99-cents?
The Free version lets you watch the day’s Happy video when you touch the icon.

The Premium version lets you easily Share videos with friends, save videos to Favorites, set a Happy Alarm, Rate videos, store your Peeps (those people you send videos to often), send Birthday videos and Submit your own videos for consideration. Not bad for 99-cents, huh?

I just watched a Happy Appy video that I’d like to share with a friend. Can I send it to them through email?
Our Premium version allows users to easily send videos to any of their contacts. Videos can be sent via email or text – you choose.

How do I set the alarm feature?
Turn on the alarm button by touching the ON/OFF button in the top right corner of the Set Alarm screen. Then select a time and a sound. The alarm is set! (but must be reset each day). Be sure that your volume is turned up, or you won’t be Happy!

Can I send you a video that I’ve made?
Absolutely, if you have the Premium version. But you’ll have to post the video to You Tube first. Then send us the link through our web site or our app by touching the Got Happy? button in the bottom right corner of the App.

How do I save my favorite videos?
With the Premium version, simply touch the star with the plus sign, in the upper right corner of your screen, after watching the video that you’d like to save.

I saved a video to Favorites, but it’s no longer there. What happened?
Sometimes content on You Tube is omitted by the person who posted it, or by YouTube. Happy Appy can’t control that.

Will I ever see the same video twice?
Not if we can help it…(unless you’ve saved it to Favorites)

What are Peeps?
The Peeps section is a place where you can save people that you frequently share Happy’s with. It’s an easy way for you to get to those people without having to scroll through your contacts each time.

Why do you need my name and birthday?
We’d like to send you a special Happy on your birthday! (we won’t share with anyone – promise)

How do I delete someone from my Peeps list?
Touch the trash can in the upper left corner of the screen, and then select the names you’d like to delete.

Why are there ads on some of the videos?
Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about this. YouTube is in charge, here. We just access footage from their site.

Do you make any money on the videos that are shown?
Nope. Every video belongs to the person who posted it. Happy Appy simply redirects App users to those videos.

Is your company affiliated with YouTube?
Nope. We just go to them for content.

How can I contact customer service?
Please email us at


Sample Happy Appy Video

Here's an example of the kind of video you'll see in the app. Bet it'll make you smile! Get Happy.