Why & How to Start Your Day With a Smile

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Some scientists say that humans are the only animals who smile. I don’t believe that.

Daisy in the garden (Beverly Jones)

Daisy, our yellow lab, has a killer smile. As she establishes eye contact, her mouth drops open and the corners turn up, wider and wider. When she gives my husband, Andy, her love gaze, his big grin mimics hers. The two of them may briefly freeze like that, with locked eyes and happy faces. At other times, Daisy’s smile overtakes her body and she gyrates with pleasure, from her wagging tail and wriggling butt to her vibrating shoulders.

I’ve noticed that simply by describing a recent Daisy smile I can trigger an intense answering smile on Andy’s face. Because he frequently travels, on occasion I’ll describe her smile as we chat on the phone. In my mind’s eye I see his face light up, at just the thought of Daisy’s happy look.

While there’s disagreement about the validity of canine smiles, scientists agree that the human smile is contagious. Dale Carnegie talked about it in his popular 1936 book, How to Win Friends & Influence People. In the book’s section on “Six Ways to Make People Like You,” Principle 2 was just one word: “Smile.”

Carnegie quoted this Chinese proverb: “a man without a smiling face must not open a shop.” Your smile, he said, “is a messenger of your goodwill,” and a simple way to make a good impression. Carnegie advised us to smile even when we don’t feel like it, because action and feeling go together. If we smile we’ll feel happier, and those around us may as well.

Smiling can make your day and boost your career

In the roughly 80 years since Carnegie drafted Principle 2, psychologists and other scientists have undertaken countless studies of the human smile. In her fascinating book, “Why Smile?” social psychologist Marianne LaFrance examined research getting at “what makes smiles so powerful, and powerfully consequential.”

It seem that the phenomenon is more complicated than Carnegie realized. LaFrance explains that your smile and the message it carries are shaped in part by your culture. For example, in the American South people smile often, and to stone-faced Northeasterners their friendly demeanors may come across as fake. Also, immediate circumstances can shift the way your expression is interpreted. Normally your smile is positive for the person who receives it. But if you flash a big grin when you win the game, it might get under your rival’s skin.

Despite the complexities, however, the research affirms that “smile!” is often excellent career advice. Here are some why’s and how’s of smiling:

  • It feels good. Smiling can increase the release of endorphins and other mood-enhancing hormones. It can calm your heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress, contribute to a heightened sense of well-being, and support good health.
  • It looks good. When you smile, there’s a better chance other people will perceive you as attractive, likable and memorable. They are also more likely to find you approachable and see you as trustworthy. And they’ll think you look younger.
  • It’s contagious. We are hardwired to mirror each other’s happy looks. When you smile at colleagues or clients, they may automatically return your expression. More importantly, as you exchange smiles with another person, the two of you connect in a more fundamental way. They actually experience the positivity underlying your smile, and as a result could be more satisfied with your conversation.
  • It spreads. If your smile makes a team member feel good, his mood will improve and he’ll be more likely to smile at the next face he sees. The wave of good feeling can become viral, moving from one person to another.
  • Even fakes work. The most powerful smiles are genuine, emanating from deep within you. But social smiles, that require some effort on your part, are effective as well. And they can start a virtuous cycle. If you struggle to smile, but then I smile back, you will respond to my facial expression. Soon your tentative smile can become heartfelt.
  • You can get better at it. The more you practice a positive expression, the more likely it is that you’ll experience spontaneous smiles. The trick is to start your smile from the inside, by thinking about something that makes you feel good. Simple techniques include summoning up the image of a loved one, or remembering a particularly happy event.

If you smile more regularly, the new habit can retrain your brain to see the world in more optimistic ways. The new dose of positivity might boost your creativity and help you to be more productive. An excellent way to get started is to begin each morning with a smile. When you first wake up, summon up a happy thought and practice your best grin. Then your smiles will come more easily for the rest of the day.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.