The Performance Solution
How the key to optimal performance may be as simple as a smile
There is a famous quote by Douglas Horton that says, “Smile, it’s free therapy.” Fun as this quote is, did you know there is actually scientific evidence to support this notion that smiling can actually cheer someone up. While stress can debilitate one’s abilities physically and cognitively, the happy hormones that come from a smile can fight stress and enhance one’s performance. It turns out, smiling may be the key for individuals to reach an optimal level of performance.
Optimal level of performance
People refer to the optimal level of performance in many ways — being “in the moment,” “in the zone,” “the zone of optimal functioning,” or being in a “flow” state. William and Krane define the optimal level performance as so:
“Those relatively infrequent times when individuals feel totally immersed in the performance. When that happens, performers describe the experience as something outside of the ordinary. They are ‘in the moment’ performing at an automatic level, without need for conscious thought and direction. They feel totally in control, totally focused on the task, extremely confident, with a total loss of self-consciousness, and their perception of the passage of time is altered, either losing all awareness of time, or feeling as if things are happening in slow motion (William and Krane).”
Summarized, the optimal level of performance refers to a specific level of arousal that inspires cohesive mental, emotional and physical function, which leads to a superior level of performance. An example of this is a pianist who, through practice, has memorized her piece in her mind and through muscle memory, and is able to recall those skills and display them with minimal mental effort, also known as automatic processing.
Obtaining this optimal level of arousal is a feat that alludes many. Whether preparing for a work performance, social performance or physical performance, performers often experience pre-performance anxiety which inhibits them from reaching that ideal level. Smiling is a simple way of combating that anxiety. In order to understand how smiling enhances a performance, it is important to understand what happens to a performer when they experience that anxiety.
What is stress? Stress is “a burst of energy that basically advises you on what to do. In small doses, stress has many advantages. For instance, stress can help you meet daily challenges and motivates you to reach your goals” (Good stress, Bad stress). However, an increased dose of stress stimulates what people know as the fight or flight response. This response evolved to help people in life-threatening situations. When it is triggered, “the heart pound(s) and breathing quicken(s). Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear” (Harvard Health Publishing). This is due to a “carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety.” Although these hormones are programmed to be triggered in life-threatening situations, they are also triggered in any stressful situation, including a performance.
There are seven primary hormones that are released when the stress response is triggered, but the two main hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline, “Increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.” Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, “Increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues” (Mayo Clinic Staff). As these hormones pulse through the body, they reroute blood flow to the most essential areas of the body such as the heart and lungs and large muscle groups and impede non-essential functions.
Stress affects people mentally, emotionally and physically. High doses of stress can hinder one’s memory, ability to think clearly and reaction time (Mcewen). Stress effects confidence levels and can trigger depression in high doses.
Scientists have studied the physical, mental and emotional effects that stress has on performance. In a study by Metz, Jadavji and Smith, they examined the physical effects of stress on performers. They noted, “Stress affects the motor system both directly via hormonal changes and indirectly via changes in emotionality” (Metz, Jadavji & Smith). Increased stress affects both gross and fine motor skills, which greatly hinders any kind of performance. In a study on the emotional and mental effects of stress, Scrivner administered cortisol to a random sample of students before an exam. He noted that, “An increase in cortisol correlated significantly with a decrease in confidence (Scrivner).” He asked the students in each group how prepared they believed they were for the test. The group with the cortisol had a perceived decrease in preparedness than the students without the stress hormones.
Robert D. Nideffer studied the effects of stress specifically to performers. Nideffer cites a study by P.J. Cohen that studies the optimal performance level in golf. Cohen asserts that for golfers to “get in the zone” or reach that optimal level of performance, they need to engage in what’s referred to as “automatic processing” (Cohen). Automatic processing occurs when people engage in activities that they frequently engage in and require minimal processing such as brushing ones teeth, tapping a foot or driving. Performers often practice so that they engage in automatic processing during their performance. Nideffer gives an example of how stress can affect even automatic processing by providing an example of something that is normally automatic, but through stress, is disrupted:
“Holding a piece of food between your thumb and forefinger and then bringing your hand toward your face and placing the food in your mouth is a highly practiced response. You don’t have to think about it. Without any conscious effort on your part, you are able to grasp the food, move your arm, open your mouth, insert the food, and close your mouth. There is no fear of missing your mouth, no thought of being unsuccessful. You can eat and carry on a conversation, pay attention to the TV, read a book and process the information from the book, etc. Your conscious attention is on something besides the mechanical aspects of eating. Eating is an automatic processes, your mind is free to consciously attend to other things.
As practiced and as automatic as the eating process is, it can be disrupted. Take a match and hold it between you thumb and forefinger. Light the match, and then bring the match up like a piece of food and put it in your mouth. Close your mouth tightly over the match (as you would over a bit of food). If you close your mouth tightly over the match, it will reduce the amount of oxygen available to the match and reduce the flame so that you will not get burned. If you fail to close your mouth tightly over the match, however, you will get burned. If you are like most people, when you try this little demonstration you will lose confidence in your ability to perform a very simple act. What was an automatic process will become a very conscious one.”
This simple demonstration of how stress hormones can affect even automatic processes. With this in mind, let’s discuss a very simple way of combatting those stress hormones.
Effects of Smiling
Smiling is one of the best and simplest ways to fight off the stress hormones that performers feel before, during or after a performance. When you smile, your body starts by activating the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress (Seaward). Neuropeptides are tiny molecules (neurotransmitters) that allow neurons to communicate. Smiling releases the feel-good neurotransmitters — dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. This, “Relaxes your body [and] can also lower your heart rate and blood pressure (R.D.).” When your body is stressed and your heart starts racing and your blood supply is rerouted, the dopamine, endorphins and serotonin that are released will calm and relax your body, restoring your gross and fine motor function.
Smiling not only helps restore physical function; it can boost mental and emotional function as well. KJ Karren noted that the “serotonin release brought on by your smile serves as an anti-depressant/mood lifter” (Karren KJ). These hormones also enhance memory and promote healthy cognitive function. The enhanced memory, mood and cognitive function allows performers to engage in automatic processing and enter the zone of optimal performance. Additionally, the endorphins will give performers an increased level of confidence before, during and after the performance.
The interesting thing about smiling is that it does not need to be a real smile for the body to react. Smith asserts, “These [hormones] are triggered by the movements of the muscles in your face, which is interpreted by your brain, which in turn releases these chemicals…Faking a smile or laugh works as well as the real thing — the brain doesn’t differentiate between real or fake as it interprets the positioning of the facial muscles in the same way. This is known as the facial feedback hypothesis. The more we stimulate our brain to release this chemical the more often we feel happier and relaxed” (Smith). Essentially, the muscular movements of one’s face when they smile trigger the hormonal response, which in turn relaxes and enhances physical, mental and emotional functions, allowing performers to enter the zone of optimal performance.
With people spending hundreds to thousand of dollars on methods, supplements and drugs to enhance performance, perhaps the key to an optimal performance is already within them: smile.
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