Growing up, you probably heard your parents advise you of the well-known saying, “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours” and may have experienced first-hand how contagious a simple smile can be!

So, for this week’s blog we’re shining the spotlight on the neuroscience behind ‘catching a smile’ and how it can be a wonderfully simple tool to boost our children’s sense of well-being and empower them to positively boost others too!

Pass On A Smile: Happiness is Contagious!

Have you ever found yourself in a room with someone and found you couldn’t help but catch on to their current mood or emotional state? Whether they’re bubbly and excitable and you can’t help but smile or they’re sad and negative and you feel your energy dip too, science is at play. That’s thanks to something called mirror neurons.

What are Mirror Neurons?

  •         We have billions of neurons in our brain and a cluster of them are our mirror neurons, whose role is to notice and then replicate the body language and facial expressions of others. These neurons are always ticking along in the background without us being consciously aware of them but they directly influence our mood depending on the environment we find ourselves in.
  •         When we smile at another person, their mirror neurons detect this and send a message to their brain to activate the muscles responsible for smiling and so they smile back or pass on a smile. Interestingly, not only do the muscles respond to this smile but our chemical balance also shifts, releasing feel-good chemicals such as neuropeptides, dopamine, serotonin and other endorphins. This explains the link between smiles and mental health. 
  •         Since dopamine increases our feelings of happiness and serotonin is a natural antidepressant, it provides the individual with a feel-good boost – and if your child already works with one of the Youth Fairies, you will already know the importance of some of these feel-good chemicals on the brain since we talk about these a lot in our sessions!

Interestingly, however, our mirror neurons work not only for smiles but any emotional response or facial expression we detect, even the negative ones.

In fact, not surprisingly, various studies have shown that the level of emotional closeness we have with someone directly influences the level of intensity that our mirror neurons respond. So, for example, even though subconsciously our mirror neurons may register and respond to the body language of a passer-by, they will have a greater conscious effect on our mood if we know and feel connected to an individual, such as a friend or family member. This makes sharing a smile at home or school even more important!

How Can We Use Mirror Neurons Positively?

We all want our children to be kind and would like to think they would be one of the first to lend a helpful hand to a friend in need. Often, it’s the smallest gestures that can make a huge difference to someone’s day and, ultimately, an individual’s sense of overall emotional and mental well-being. Let’s explore the link between smiles and mental health in a little more detail.

The tips below can not only empower your own child to tackle some difficult challenges but can also enable them to help a friend in need – and see those mirror neurons in action for themselves!


  1.     Fake a smile – your brain will catch up! Just as we’ve seen above, when we pass on a smile, a surge of feel-good chemicals is released that boost our feelings of happiness and well-being. The same is also true if we fake a smile! Our brain and our bodies are interconnected so when our brain detects that the muscles that are used for smiling are activated, the same feel-good chemicals get released (even if we’re not actually feeling happy at the time). So why not try this out the next time your child doesn’t really feel like smiling and see how long it takes to smile for real. We really can fake it until we make it!
  2.     Remember a thought is just a thought. It can be hugely empowering for children to know that all thoughts – positive or negative – are simply that. A thought. We have the power to believe a thought and decide how much energy we put into growing the thought and how big it becomes. When children understand this, it can help them to realise that they can directly influence their levels of happiness. In our work with children, we often ask children to consider what would be different or better if a problem they had no longer existed. Just imagining the problem not being there opens up plenty of opportunity for positive problem-solving discussions and encourages them to do one small thing in the right direction, whatever that looks like for them.
  3.     Enable them to feel empowered in social situations. If your child or teen often feels anxious or overwhelmed in social situations, encourage them to try out a little mirror neuron experiment the next time they find themselves in a social situation that feels out of their comfort zone. As we have seen, smiles and mental health are linked – the mood of others directly influences our own and so the same is true for ourselves too. If your teen complains they often feel left out, for example, in social situations. then challenge them to take on the role of ‘sharing a smile’ or becoming ‘director of happiness’ for the duration of the event. Even though this might seem silly, no one will consciously notice what they are doing but they will find they can’t help but smile! Challenge your child to see the mirror neurons in action by sharing a smile with everyone they come into contact with. They may well be surprised by how much happier they feel as a result too!

And so, with that in mind, we will leave you with one final thought:

Spike Milligan’s Famous Poem: Smiling is Infectious.

Smiling is infectious,

You catch it like the flu,

When someone smiled at me today,

I started smiling too.


I passed around the corner,

And someone saw my grin.

When he smiled, I realised,

I passed it on to him.


I thought about that smile,

Then I realised its worth.

A single smile, just like mine,

Could travel round the earth.


So, if you feel a smile begin,

Don’t leave it undetected.

Let’s start a [smiling] epidemic quick,

And get the world infected!


Explore The Benefits Of Our Smile Programme At The Youth Fairy

As we’ve seen, the power of a smile for our own wellbeing and those around us has incredible impacts on our psychological and physical wellbeing. Both releasing your feel good hormones and reducing stress, passing on a smile has more than one benefit. 

If your child is struggling with low mood, confidence or periods of anxiety, talk to The Youth Fairy. Explore our therapy programmes and book your free consultation today.