Expressive Super Powers: Use only for Good

Smiling.

It is arguably the single most effective means of changing how you feel, how long you live and how others respond to you. Study after study supports the idea that smiling is positive and life giving. Ron Gutman (founder and CEO of HealthTap, TED speaker) gathered and presented his findings at TED in March 2011, which were also published in Forbes. Go to the original article for further information and links to studies.

Here is a thumbnail of what he found.

A 30-year longitudinal study at UC Berkeley examined yearbook smiles of past students. They found a positive correlation between the widest smiles and the highest rankings in length and satisfaction of marriage, standardized test scores on well-being and happiness and how inspiring they were to others.

In 2010, a Wayne State University research study sampled 1952 baseball card photos. Those players with the widest smiles enjoyed longer life spans, living an average of seven years longer. 

Smiling is our human nature. 3-D ultrasound revealed smiling babies in the womb. Once born, babies smile while sleeping, while blind babies smile at the sound of a human voice. It is commonly known (thanks to the leading expert on facial expressions, Paul Ekman) that smiling is cross-cultural and communicates the same basic emotion in vastly different societies.

Children lead the way in smile frequency, up to 400 times per day. 30% of us adults smile more than 20 times a day, while less than 14% smile less than 5 times a day. The children lead by example and there is no good reason to not act like a child when it comes to smiling.

The infectious power of a smile can’t be denied, according to research at Uppsala University in Sweden (2002 and 2011). The findings confirmed what we instinctively know: Another’s smile suppresses our facial control muscles, ultimately compelling us to smile. The study also revealed it is harder to frown when looking at a smiling face.

Gutman also found that smiling is a useful tool in ferreting out social cues and meaning. By smiling back at someone, by experiencing a smile ourselves, we are better able to interpret how real the other’s smile is.  To that point, a study at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France asked subjects to rate how genuine a smile was while holding a pencil in their mouths. The pencil subdued the smiling muscles. The subject’s accuracy in rating real or fake smiles dropped off when using the pencils. Without the pencils, the participants were markedly better at interpreting how real a smile was.

Recent studies support Charles Darwin’s assertion, in his Facial Feedback Response Theory, that the act of smiling makes us feel better. He believed that smiling did not simply result from a sense of well-being. British researchers, using an electromagnetic brain scan machine and heart rate monitor to scale mood-boosting values for certain stimuli, found that one smile provided the same degree of brain stimulation as 2,000 chocolate bars. Zero calorie bliss not available at your local drugstore.

Smiling improves how others perceive us, according to a recent study at Penn State  University. Their research confirmed that we are seen as more likeable, courteous and competent when we smile. Leading with a smile sounds like an effective approach to more positive communication. 

Finally, smiling has defined positive physical effects: reduced stress hormone levels like dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol, increased health enhancing hormone levels like endorphins and lower blood pressure levels.

Still not convinced? A few years ago I saw a smile transform a contentious interaction into a cooperative one almost instantly. A graphic arts instructor had mistakenly occupied a classroom for an early Saturday morning lecture. Confronted in the hallway by the person at the front desk, a peaceful smile spread across the instructor’s face as she calmly accepted responsibility for the error. The instructor grounded her response to the front desk person with a genuine smile and calm demeanor, effectively suppressing the heat of the moment. The front desk person reluctantly granted an exception for that morning session as we filed back into the room. The instructor channeled her inner Yoda and got what she wanted.

Smile. It will come back to you in ways you will never expect or imagine.