There’s something about my friend Jara. She sparkles with positive, magnetic energy. Kids that aren’t even hers climb into her car after school hoping for a playdate. People cross the room to make her acquaintance. Part of Jara’s appeal is that she is kind, smart, and funny, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that she has a great smile.
In 1872, Charles Darwin proposed in his Facial Feedback Response Theory that the act of smiling actually makes us feel better instead of smiling being a response to feeling good. Since then, research has proven that smiling not only boosts our mental and physical health, but it also improves our social likability. In the book How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg lists smiling as one of the eight best ways to exercise your brain. Newberg writes that “smiling can interrupt mood disorders and strengthen the brain’s neural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life.”
It helps then that smiles are neurologically contagious in every culture. Try looking at a smiling baby without smiling in response. According to research studies, we can’t, because our unconscious mind controls our facial muscles. Newberg says that “if you just see a picture of a smiling face, you will involuntarily feel happier and more secure.”
Ron Gutman recently posted a TED.com video talk on “The Hidden Power of Smiling.” He says that smiling “reduces stress hormone levels like cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine; increases health and mood enhancing hormone levels like endorphins; and lowers blood pressure.” Gutman also claims that research has shown that one smile gives the same positive mood boost as ingesting 2000 chocolate bars or receiving a check for $25,000!
You’d think that with all these positive benefits, we’d be smiling all the time, but not so, according to Gutman. He states that “thirty percent of us smile more than twenty times a day, but fourteen percent of us smile less than five times a day.” Children, on the other hand, smile up to 400 times a day. Newberg says smiles generate in others a sense of greater generosity and kindness. According to Gutman, recent smiling studies at Penn State University found that when we smile we are not only perceived as more likable and courteous, but also more competent. This might explain why Jara was so successful at securing donations for our school’s fundraising event.
Not a natural smiler, I practice my grin in the mirror. When I think of something humorous or happy, I can produce a reasonable smile, but when I try to smile on demand, stimulus-free, I look like a bad used car salesman. Scientists are split on the issue of whether all smiles are created equal. Newberg states that even a fake smile will garner positive feedback from others. But recent studies have found that if you smile too quickly you are perceived as insincere, a fixed grin registers as fake, and a small, thin smile rates you as a cold fish. Current research suggests that the best smile spreads slowly and engages the whole face.
In The Definitive Book of Body Language, Allan and Barbara Pease write that although people cannot consciously differentiate between a real smile and a fake one, that “in the enjoyment smile, not only are the lip corners pulled up, but the muscles around the eyes are contracted, while nonenjoyment smiles involve just the smiling lips.”
Despite popular believe, liars smile less when lying, and those who are innocent or telling the truth smile more frequently, according to the Peases. A tight-lipped smile means that a secret or opinion is being withheld. A tight-lipped smile given from one women to another is usually read by the receiver as a rejection signal. Southerners smile more than their counterparts in the rest of the country, which is why the “smirk” of George W. Bush and the wide grin of Jimmy Carter were often misunderstood. Say the Peases, “Smile constantly and everyone will wonder what you’ve been up to.” Not smiling is a way of asserting dominance. Think Clint Eastwood, Margaret Thatcher, Posh Spice, and Charles Bronson.
The Peases say that it doesn’t matter if a smile is real or fake since a smile will almost always be returned–one smile leads to another and so on, even if the first smile didn’t reach the eyes. Gutman says that people who smile more live longer, have a greater sense of well-being and general happiness, and inspire others.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh encourages the practice of “smiling meditation,” and suggests smiling first thing in the morning and smiling whenever you have a spare moment. He says that when we smile we “bring happiness to us and to those around us…nothing we buy could give as much happiness as the gift of our awareness, our smile.”
I have been practicing my smiling–a real, genuine smile that makes wrinkles around my eyes. I am trying to remember to smile more at my children, my husband, my friends. I also practice smiling meditation when I drive. If I happen to catch the eye of someone in a passing car or walking down the street, I smile. And most the time, people smile back, especially if they are under ten years old. All that scientific research is right. Smiling is contagious and makes you feel better, because when a stranger smiles back at me, I find myself grinning and humming with happy brain hormones. So much so, that I just might be able to cross chocolate off my shopping list.
Recently, Jara was backing out of a parking spot as I was waiting behind her. I could see her in her side mirror so I waved. I thought she saw me too because she was smiling. Then I realized that Jara didn’t see me at all–she was smiling at someone or something else. A big, happy, life-enhancing smile. And I couldn’t help it. Even though she wasn’t smiling at me, I smiled back.