Sometimes, a smile can go a long way, inspire others

Exercise equipment, diet plans, organization tools – they are all part of the season of self-improvement that comes with the new year. There is another simple, but very powerful, self-improvement strategy – smile more. I am serious. The power of the smile is backed by science and is certainly easy to do.

A smile has the power to make you feel better. Neuropsychologists have found a strong relationship between facial muscle movement and mood.

The exact nature of this link is the subject of much study and debate. We typically assume that if someone is feeling sad, the face will follow suit and show a frown. If feeling happy, a smile appears. Interestingly, the relationship appears to be bidirectional, such that when the face forms a smile, a person starts to feel happier, and when frowning, he or she tends to feel sadder.

Research by Fritz Strack and colleagues (1988) demonstrates a person can sometimes change his mood by simply changing the expression on his face.

A smile has the power to make others feel better. We know that the flu can be contagious, but you may be surprised to learn emotions can also be spread from one person to another. How does this work?

A pivotal book in 1994 called Emotional Contagion by Elaine Hatfield and colleagues describes a process of facial mimicry. As we watch someone smile, we start to smile ourselves in small, barely perceptible movements. Researchers theorize this activity helps us to better feel what another person is feeling, and thus, empathy is enhanced. Therefore, when you smile at someone, that person can hardly help smiling back at you. Furthermore, that person is likely to feel some positive emotion from the mimicry. In essence, your happiness is contagious.

A smile makes social interactions easier. Our facial expressions exist to help us communicate with others. Most researchers accept psychologist Paul Ekman’s assertion from more than 40 years ago (1970), that humans are born with the ability to recognize several universal expressions regardless of language or culture. A smile is a smile no matter where you go. Therefore, communicating by smiling typically puts others around you at ease and helps them to identify that you are not a threat, even if they have never met you.

Smiles can help in print, also. Think about an email or text message that may have been misunderstood because it lacked emotional cues. A colleague of mine once remarked, “Never underestimate the power of a well-placed smiley face.” She had avoided many email wars by including emotional cues in her messages. Emotional cues help grease the social wheels, whether the cues are on a face or in print.

Of course, a smile is not always appropriate, and at times, no matter how hard you may try to pull your cheeks into a smile, a negative emotion may simply overpower your effort. There are likely to be many times in 2014, though, when a little proactive smile action might just do the trick.

Lynn Urban is president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Colorado.

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