“A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”
-— Phyllis Diller, actor and comedian
Welcome 2021! I was happy to bid 2020 goodbye and good riddance. COVID-19 is still with us, but the prospect of a new year (and a vaccine) makes me smile. Granted, few people see my smile anymore because I’m so often masked, but it turns out a smile is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Greeting the new year with a smile sets you up for a good day, a good week, and all of 2021 and beyond. Your willingness to smile can even predict marital success and how long you live.
Smile for Love and Long Life
In his 2013 book, “The Tell: The Little Clues that Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are,” Matthew Hertenstein of DePauw University compared smiles in yearbook photos with life experiences for people from their early 20s to their late 80s. “Those who smiled the least in their photos were five times more likely to divorce at some point in their lives relative to those who smiled the most,” he reports. While his work does not show cause and effect, it does suggest that people who smile are doing something right.
Researchers also found that evaluating smiles from 1950s-era photographs of Major League Baseball players could help predict who would live the longest. Even controlling for possible distorting factors, players who showed a genuine smile had an average life expectancy of 80. Those whose smile didn’t make it to their eyes lived, on average, 75 years. The poker-faced players lived, on average, 73 years.
Work Those Muscles, Feel the High
A genuine “felt smile” engages two essential muscles: the zygomaticus major, which raises the corners of the mouth, and the orbicularis oculi, which surrounds the eyes and raises the cheeks. If your smile falls short of your eyes, scientists call it a “social smile.” That’s not a bad thing; it just doesn’t have the same impact as a full-on dual-muscle smile. It’s true that frowning uses more muscle power than smiling, but it doesn’t make you feel as good.
“When your muscles say you’re happy, you’re more likely to see the world around you in a positive way,” says Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos of the University of South Australia. “We found that, when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala — the emotional center of the brain — which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.”
Those neurotransmitters include dopamine, known as the “feel-good” hormone; endorphins, which are known to diminish sensitivity to pain (perhaps even the pain of having to wear a mask every day?); and serotonin, known as your brain’s natural antidepressant.
When you think about something that makes you happy — say, a supply of good chocolate or finding $20 stashed in the pocket of an old coat — you activate your brain’s reward center. A smile, your own or someone else’s, activates the same reward center, hence the release of those feel-good neurotransmitters. Heard of a runner’s high? Turns out a smile can give you the same kind of emotional kick without the sweat.
Which Came First?
In research from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, psychologist Judith Grob found that, when you express emotion on your face, you’re more likely to be guided by the emotion, whether it’s a frown or a smile.
Dr. Michael Lewis, a researcher at Cardiff University in Wales, adds that, when we experience emotion, our bodies reinforce it. “It’s like a feedback loop,” he says. Research suggests that patients who frown during an unpleasant procedure report feeling more pain.
Marmolejo-Ramos confirms this link between action and perception. “In a nutshell,” he says, “perceptual and motor systems are intertwined when we emotionally process stimuli.” Or as Grob puts it: “I smile, so I must be happy.”
What, Me Smile?
So what is taking us so long to adopt smiling as a health activity that should rank right up there with exercise and good nutrition? If an apple a day keeps the doctor away and laughter is the best medicine, what happened to the smile?
Smiles were not always, well, smiled upon. In “A Brief History of the Smile,” Angus Trumble notes there was a time when big smiles were “associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous.”
By the 20th century, however, we started warming up to smiles. Researchers at the University of California – Berkeley looked at 38,000 American high school yearbook photos across 10 decades. They measured how broadly people smiled (lip curvature) and concluded that smiles gained considerable popularity over the course of the century.
These days, it’s accepted that people who smile appear more likeable, courteous, trustworthy and attractive. “A smile is the best makeup any girl can wear,” according to American icon Marilyn Monroe.
Smile Like a Pro
We lose the propensity to smile as we age. Children smile like champs — 400 times a day. Happy grownups smile maybe 40 to 50 times a day. The rest of us? A paltry 20 times a day.
If you don’t smile much, you can change that.
First, practice making your smile obvious. You heard that people know whether you’re smiling, even on the phone. To make sure others “hear” your smile, visualize something or someone or someplace that makes you really, really happy. Imagine it before you pick up the phone and your smile will be audible.
Second, get in the habit of smiling. Forget the phrase: “Nice guys finish last.” Accept that smiling gets you further in life, and smile every time you wash your hands or pour a cup of coffee.
Third, practice when no one’s watching. When you get it right, you’ll feel your body relax a little and it will shift how your day plays out. Follow the advice of Japanese multimedia artist and peace activist Yoko Ono, “Smile in the mirror. Do that every morning and you’ll start to see a big difference in your life.”
The great news about the smile is that it isn’t just your own smile that can raise your spirits. Smiling is perhaps even more contagious than the coronavirus or will be when we can safely ditch the masks. Just as we yawn when we see someone else yawn, we smile when we see someone else smile. Hence the advice, variously attributed to Dolly Parton, Zig Ziglar and others, “If you meet someone without a smile, give them one of yours.” It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Molly Rose Teuke has an enduring curiosity about what makes our brains tick. Pre-COVID-19, she offered a program for Nicolet College called Getting Your Brain on Your Side and delivered brain-based leadership training for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global leader in the performance arena. She also hosted a weekly classical music program on WXPR-FM, which will resume post-COVID-19. You can reach her at mollyrosecoaching.com.