Health Matters: Happiness is healing

Sounds a little strange, but it is true: Positive thinking and smiling does affect your physiological health.

Dr. Kate Ionelli
Dr. Kate Ionelli
  • West Orange Times & Observer
  • News
  • Share

“I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite.”

Buddy the Elf was onto something with his affinity for smiling and his happy-go-lucky attitude. It turns out, smiling is the first step toward happiness — even if, initially, it isn’t genuine.

“Smiling triggers the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, resulting in stress reduction, increased happiness and a boost in the mood,” said licensed psychologist Dr. Kate Ionelli. “So, even if you don’t feel like it — smile!”

Ionelli is the owner of Optimal Health Psychological Services, in Winter Garden and president-elect of Florida Psychological Association’s Central Chapter.

SCL Health shared multiple health benefits of smiling on its website.

“When you smile, your brain releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides to help fight off stress. Then other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins come into play too. The endorphins act as a mild pain reliever, whereas the serotonin is an antidepressant. 

One study even suggests that smiling can help us recover faster from stress and reduce our heart rate,” according to SCL Health.

The writer agreed with Ionelli that it might be worth one’s while to fake a smile.

“There’s been some evidence that forcing a smile can still bring you a boost in your mood and happiness level,” according to SCL Health.

According to an article on the Psychology Today website: “Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.”

“When people are struggling emotionally, they tend to feel overwhelmed with negative thoughts and emotions, creating a cycle of negative experiences,” Ionelli said. “One large aspect of my clinical work as a psychologist is by helping people get in touch with their authentic thoughts and feelings — good, bad or ugly. Once thoughts and feelings are identified and validated — because all feelings need to be felt and heard, not stored or repressed — they can be released.

“Once freed from difficult thoughts and feelings, space in the brain is created for healthier and more productive feelings, thoughts and behaviors. There is a saying in neuroscience, ‘Neurons that fire together wire together,’ meaning the more one focuses on positive thoughts such as happiness, gratitude and joyful memories, and the more one repeats this and new neural pathways are created in the brain, (they are) ultimately rewiring the brain for happiness.”

The mind-body connection is a powerful relationship, she said.

Ionelli said part of her job is to give clients “the freedom to say it, feel it, think it, not be embarrassed by it and replace it with good things.”

And, she said, it’s all scientifically based and there is evidence to support this.

Early in her career, Ionelli did research on depression and anxiety and “locus of control” and its impact on premenstrual symptoms on women.

“My research found a significant positive correlation between depression/anxiety and premenstrual symptoms, confirming the importance of accounting for depression and anxiety when studying and treating PMS and vice versa, certainly indicating a mind-body connection,” she said. “Clinically, I have worked with many patients over the years who have experienced considerable physical healing, through deep emotional work, by connecting the mind and body in a healthy way.”



Humans have something called mirror neurons in their brain, and what these do is create a mimic reaction.

“It’s like, if we pass each other on the street, and you smile at me, it’s going to be an automatic reaction for me to smile at you,” Ionelli said. “That’s another reason to smile because you get someone to smile at you.”

The part of your brain that is responsible for your facial expression of smiling when happy or mimicking another’s smile resides in the cingulate cortex, an unconscious automatic response area, according to Psychology Today.

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the large disconnect many people are feeling today, Ionelli said.

“Isolation is one giant indicator for depression,” she said. “It’s important to feel connection.”



Instilling happiness and positivity in children varies based on their age.

“For example, smiling at babies in their infancy is critical because, going back to that mirror neuron, if it’s triggered, the baby will copy the facial expression of the caregiver and smile back. As we mentioned, smiling releases endorphins and neurotransmitters, so this is a wonderful experience for babies developmentally.”

The process for instilling positivity and happiness changes as children grow out of the baby and toddler stages.

“Older children need lots of positive reinforcement and feedback, encouragement, confidence building and boundary setting — for themselves and others,” Ionelli said.

“When children are having a problem or are in a bind, I want to be a safe place where they can come to for help, without judgement,” she said. “I encourage the release of the emotions, and once understood and supported, they then have a greater ability to problem solve. Respecting, listening to and empowering children builds their confidence, self-esteem and independence.

“When children feel worthy and loved, their hearts shine,” she said. “Additionally, children need homeostasis. Balancing proper nutrition, outdoor exercise, time with their friends and family, minimal electronics, and adequate sleep are also critical for children’s mood.”

Ionelli has worked in the field for more than 20 years ago and opened her practice in a wellness center in Winter Garden in 2014. She has two master’s degrees in psychology from Seton Hall University and Fielding University and a doctorate degree in clinical psychology with a concentration in health psychology from Fielding. She and her family live in Winter Garden.



Smiling is more contagious than the flu! It can't be resisted.

Smiling is our first facial expression

Babies are born with the ability to smile 

Smiling makes you more attractive to others 

A smile is the universal sign for happiness

Smiling is intercultural! No matter where you go, you don't need an interpreter for smiles

It's easier to smile than it is to frown. 

Smiling reduces blood pressure. 

Employers promote people who smile often 

Smiling makes you look successful

Smiling can make you happier 

Smiling can change your mood 

Women smile more than men 

Smiling reduces stress 

People who smile often are perceived as confident

Smiling boost's your immune system 

People who smile are more successful in work and relationships 

There are 19 different types of smiles 

Smiling can help you live longer 

Smiling is the most recognizable facial expression 

Smiling uses 5-53 muscles 

Humans can detect smiles from more than 300 feet away

Smiling makes you look younger 

Smiling releases endorphins 

Smiling makes you more approachable

Smiling is a form of exercise! Work those facial muscles

It is easier to smile then to frown 

If you are a woman, men find you more attractive when you smile 

The average woman smiles 62 times a day 

The average man smiles 8 times a day 

63% of women say they look best in photos where their teeth are showing 

99.7% of people say that an attractive smile is an important personal asset

74% of people believe a bad smile can hurt their chances for a successful career 

23% of people think they look best with their mouth closed

We can usually tell the difference between a fake smile and a genuine one 

47% of people notice your smile first

We buy 14 million gallons of toothpaste each year

Smiling while talking on the phone makes you sound friendly

Smiling helps you live longer

Faking a smile will help you get in a better mood

Smiling slows the heart and relaxes the body

Smiling increases productivity

Around 50% of people will smile back if you smile at them.

Smiling is a painkiller and can boost your mood.

Smiling makes you seem more trustworthy

Smiling helps the body on a cellular level

Smiling makes you more creative

Smiling is free

Smiling is like medicine.

People who smile consistently are more likely to have healthy marriages

People have difficulty frowning when they look at other subjects who are smiling

48% of young adults have untagged themselves from a photo on Facebook because of their smile.

Frequent smilers report greater well-being throughout life

Waiters who smile often while working are more likely to get a high tip

Smiling stimulates our brain's reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure inducer, cannot match

Other people's smiles actually suppress the control we usually have over our facial muscles, compelling us to smile

74% of people say that an unattractive smile can hurt a person’s chance for business or career success.

Kids laugh around 400 times a day, while the average is just 14 for adults

Happy people generally don't get sick as often as unhappy people

"Peace begins with a smile." - Mother Theresa

"Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been." - Mark Twain

"Keep smiling, because life is a beautiful thing and there is so much to smile about." - Marilyn Monroe 

"All the statistics in the world can't measure the warmth of a smile."- Chris Hart 

"A smile is happiness you find right under your nose." - Tom Wilson 

"A smiling face is an earth-like star" - Stevie Wonder

"Somehow when you smile, the day seems brighter." - Phil Collins

"A smile is a curve that sets everything straight." - Phyllis Diller

"We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do." - Mother Theresa.

"A smile enriches those who receive it, without impoverishing those who give it." - Dale Carnegie

"Nothing you wear is more important than your smile." - Connie Stevens

"The greatest self is a peaceful smile, that always sees the world smiling back." - Bryant H. McGill.

 "Share your smile with the world. It's the symbol of friendship and peace." - Christie Brinkley

"A warm smile is the universal language of kindness." - William Arthur Ward

"A smile is the universal welcome." - Max Eastman

"Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful." - Thich Nhat Hanh

"Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile." - Harvey Ball 

"A woman whose smile is open and whose expression is glad has a kind of beauty no matter what she wears. - Annie Roiphe

"Even a smile is a good deed." - Shari Arison

"Everyone smiles in the same language." - George Carlin

"Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day." - P.S. I Love You

"Use your smile to change the world. Don't let the world change your smile." - Unknown

"You'll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile." - Charlie Chaplin

"A laugh is a smile that bursts." - Mary H Waldrip

"If you see a friend without a smile; give him one of yours." - Proverb

"You're never fully dressed without a smile." - Martin Charnin

"The world always looks brighter from behind a smile." - Unknown 

"Every day you spend without a smile, is a lost day." - Unknown

"A smile is the universal welcome." - Max Eastman

"All the statistics in the world can't measure the warmth of a smile." - Chris Hart

"Most smiles are started by another smile." - Unknown

"Smile! It increases your face value." - Robert Harling, "Steel Magnolias"

"A smile is something you can't give away; it always comes back to you." - Unknown

"Most smiles are started by another smile" - unknown

"Smile, it is the key that fits the lock of everybody's heart." - Anthony J D'Angelo





Amy Quesinberry

Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.

Latest News