What is behind that smile?

It is one of the most reliable forms of communication, and the effect it has on others is powerful
“A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” [Representational Image]
“A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” [Representational Image] needpix [Creative Commons]

Smile is a cooling system of the heart, sparkling system of the eyes, lighting system of the face, relaxing system of the mind. So active all system with your sweet smile. (Sabih Imam)

A smile is a universal expression. It speaks all languages, overcomes all differences, and holds all space. It is something that two people can always share and instantly connect.  Your smile is representative of your being and the unique role you play in the world.  Your smile is unlike any other. So, smile as wide and hard as you can. Smiling is a fantastic thing. If you smile, your whole day will be smiling. If you don’t smile, the day will not smile. Make it a habit to smile. It creates a lot of friendship, a lot of happiness. (APJ Abdul Kalam)

Speaking biologically, a smile begins in our sensory corridors. The ear collects a whispered word. The eyes spot an old friend on the station platform.

The hand feels the pressure of another hand. This emotional data funnels to the brain, exciting the left anterior temporal region in particular, then smoulders to the surface of the face, where two muscles, standing at attention, are roused into action: The zygomatic major, which resides in the cheek, tugs the lips upward, and the orbicularis oculi, which encircles the eye socket, squeezes the outside corners into the shape of a crow’s foot. The entire event is short - typically lasting from two-thirds of a second to four seconds - and those who witness it often respond by mirroring the action, and smiling back.

Other muscles can simulate a smile, but only the peculiar tango of the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi produces a genuine expression of positive emotion. Psychologists call this the “Duchenne smile,” and most consider it the sole indicator of true enjoyment.

The name is a nod to French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne, who studied emotional expression by stimulating various facial muscles with electrical currents. (The technique hurt so much, it’s been said, that Duchenne performed some of his tests on the severed heads of executed criminals.) In his 1862 book Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, Duchenne wrote that the zygomatic major can be willed into action, but that only the “sweet emotions of the soul” force the orbicularis oculi to contract. “Its inertia, in smiling,” Duchenne wrote, “unmasks a false friend.”

A true smile can’t be faked. It is one of the most reliable forms of communication, and the effect it has on others is powerful.  It is capable of cutting through layers and impacting others on a personal and emotional level. A smile is also capable of changing the world one interaction at a time. “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” (William Arthur Ward)

Charles Darwin was one of the first to suggest that our expressions may actually intensify our feelings. This theory is commonly known as the ‘feedback loop’ or even ‘facial feedback hypothesis’. Simply using the same muscles as smiling will put one in an instant happy mood. That is because use of those muscles is a part of how the brain evaluates mood. A smiling expression feeds on how we experience mood, therefore making us feel happier or even a joke seems funnier.

It’s no secret that smiling has a number of positive effects on both the mind and the body. In fact, smiling is more effective in stimulating the reward mechanism of the brain than chocolate is, meaning that smiling makes people feel happy. “When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” Yes, the old song is right; smiles are contagious! But that’s just one of the superpowers of a smile. Various researchers have already compiled a long list of the benefits of smiling. Now, new research from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) adds two more reasons to that list.

Smiling can make you look younger. Even if there were no other benefits to smiling, I’m sure many of us would be grateful just for this one. The UMKC researchers tested the popular theory that smiling might cause others to perceive you as being younger than you actually are. Sure enough, in a small study, college students perceived older people who had happy smiles on their faces as looking younger than their age. The people with frowns on their faces were categorized as looking older. Smiling can make you look thinner too. In a recent study by a young psychology student at UMKC, sad faces randomized and flashed on a computer screen were judged to be heftier. This is a surprising conclusion; It can be speculated that a mouth turned down in a frown might give the impression that the person is weighed down by unhappiness.

Smiling elevates your mood and creates a sense of well-being. As behavioural psychologist Sarah Stevenson writes: “Each time you smile you throw a little feel-good party in your brain.” The notorious party animals dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin start whooping it up when you smile. And a bonus: those endorphins serve as natural pain relievers and act as the body’s own opiates. Smiling induces more pleasure in the brain, more than the chocolate. According to Ron Gutman, the author of Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, “British researchers found that one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate.” 

Even a forced smile can boost your mood. Usually, we think that a positive experience is what makes us smile. While this is true, it’s also true that merely deciding to smile can provide a positive experience. As Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” Even research subjects directed to place a pencil between their teeth, forcing their lips into a smile, actually feel better. Odd, but true. Put On a Happy Face; you will actually feel happier.

Smiling makes you seem courteous, likable, and competent. Those first two qualities seem logical, but smiling makes you seem competent? Speculation: If you look sad or anxious, perhaps others wonder if you know what you are doing. So perhaps a simple smile might be a shortcut to business success.

The span of a person’s smile can predict his lifespan. A 2010 Wayne State University research project studied pre-1950s major league player baseball cards. According to Gutman, “The researchers found that the span of a player’s smile could actually predict the span of his life. Players who didn’t smile in their pictures lived an average of only 72.9 years, where players with beaming smiles lived an average of almost 80 years.” Is a smile worth seven extra years of life to you?

Smiling is contagious inasmuch as our smiles are also responsive to our environment. Our emotions are expressed through our smiles, and when we are exposed to negativity, it affects our mental state and the way others receive it.  Our smiles can betray us because they can’t be faked and tell the true story. That’s why this quote: “Use your smile to change the world, don’t let the world change your smile” is so beautiful. By choosing to see positivity, and focusing on your many reasons to smile, you can begin to infuse that love among those immediately around you.  This creates a local effect that then amplifies as each affected person becomes an advocate and impacts those immediately around them.  We need more smiles in this world. Be a brand ambassador of smiles. You never know the real effect a smile will have on the lives of others!

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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