The Untapped Power of Smiling

Mona Lisa Smile

Smile, smile, smile.

by Ron Gutman

I started my exploratory journey in California, with an intriguing UC Berkeley 30-year longitudinal study that examined the smiles of students in an old yearbook, and measured their well-being and success throughout their lives. By measuring the smiles in the photographs the researchers were able to predict: how fulfilling and long lasting their marriages would be, how highly they would score on standardized tests of well-being and general happiness, and how inspiring they would be to others. The widest smilers consistently ranked highest in all of the above.

Even more surprising was a 2010 Wayne State University research project that examined the baseball cards photos of Major League players in 1952. The study 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, while players with beaming smiles lived an average of 79.9 years.

Continuing my journey, I learned that we’re part of a naturally smiling species, that we can use our smiling powers to positively impact almost any social situation, and that smiling is really good for us.

Surprisingly, we’re actually born smiling. 3-D ultrasound technology now shows that developing babies appear to smile even in the womb. After they’re born, babies continue to smile (initially mostly in their sleep) and even blind babies smile in response to the sound of the human voice.

A smile is also one of the most basic, biologically uniform expressions of all humans. Paul Ekman (the world’s leading expert on facial expressions) discovered that smiles are cross-cultural and have the same meaning in different societies. In studies he conducted in Papua New Guinea, Ekman found that members of the Fore tribe (who were completely disconnected from Western culture and were also known for their unusual cannibalism rituals) attributed smiles to descriptions of situations in the same way you and I would.

Smiling is not just a universal means of communicating, it’s also a frequent one. More than 30% of us smile more than 20 times a day and less than 14% of us smile less than 5 times a day. In fact, those with the greatest superpowers are actually children, who smile as many as 400 times per day!
Have you ever wondered why being around children who smile frequently makes you smile more often? Two studies from 2002 and 2011 at Uppsala University in Sweden confirmed that other people’s smiles actually suppress the control we usually have over our facial muscles, compelling us to smile. They also showed that it’s very difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles.

Why? Because smiling is evolutionarily contagious and we have a subconscious innate drive to smile when we see one. This occurs even among strangers when we have no intention to connect or affiliate with the other person. Mimicking a smile and experiencing it physically helps us interpret how genuine a smile is, so that we can understand the real emotional state of the smiler.

In research performed at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France, subjects were asked to interpret real vs. fake smiles, while holding a pencil in their mouths to repress the muscles that help us smile. Without the pencils in their mouths, subjects were excellent judges, but with the pencils (when they could not mimic the smiles they saw), their judgment was impaired.

These findings would not have surprised Charles Darwin, who in addition to theorizing on evolution in The Origin of the Species, also developed the Facial Feedback Response Theory, which suggests that the act of smiling actually makes us feel better (rather than smiling being merely a result of feeling good).

This theory is supported by various recent studies, including research out of Echnische Universität in Munich Germany. In a 2009 study, scientists there used fMRI (Functional MRI) imaging to measure brain activity in regions of emotional processing in the brain before and after injecting Botox to suppress smiling muscles. The findings showed that facial feedback (such as imitating a smile) actually modifies the neural processing of emotional content in the brain, and concluded that our brain’s circuitry of emotion and happiness is activated when we smile!
Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure-inducer, cannot match. In a study conducted in the UK (using an electromagnetic brain scan machine and heart-rate monitor to create “mood-boosting values” for various stimuli), British researchers found that one smile can provide the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 chocolate bars; they also found that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash. That’s 25 grand a smile… it’s not bad…at 400 daily smiles quite a few children out there feel like Mark Zuckerberg every day!

And unlike lots of chocolate, lots of smiling can actually make you healthier. Smiling has documented therapeutic effects, and has been associated with: reduced stress hormone levels (like cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine), increased health and mood enhancing hormone levels (like endorphins), and lowered blood pressure.

If that’s not enough, smiling also makes us look good in the eyes of others. A recent Penn State University study confirmed that when we smile we not only appear more likeable and courteous, but we’re actually perceived to be more competent.

So now we know that:

When you smile, you look good and feel good.
When others see you smile, they smile too.
When others smile, they look good and feel good, too.
Perhaps this is why Mother Teresa said: “I will never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish.” What’s the catch? Only that the smile you give has to be big, and genuine!
In my fascinating journey to uncover more about smiling, I discovered something far greater than just a way to get through a challenging run – I found a simple and surprisingly powerful way to significantly improve my own life and the lives of others.

So now, whenever you want to look great and competent, improve your marriage, or reduce your stress…or whenever you want to feel as good as when you’ve enjoyed a stack of high quality chocolate without incurring the caloric cost, or as if you randomly found 25 grand in the pocket of a jacket you hadn’t worn for ages…or when you want to tap into a superpower and help yourself and others live longer, healthier happier lives…SMILE 🙂

Ron Gutman is founder and CEO of HealthTap. He also serves as the Curator of TEDxSilicon Valley. This column was adopted from a presentation at the most recent TED conference.

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Neurocardiology: Your Heart Has A Brain

1656067_10103330473591158_1893301200_nDid you know that your heart consists of more neurological tissue than muscle? Your heart actually has its own brain, a brain that is fifty times more powerful electrically, and five thousand times more powerful magnetically, than the brain in your head.

Just like the conductor of an orchestra, your heart has the capacity to create system wide order and harmony, that leads to positive changes in gene expression, biochemistry, and self-healing. From this point of view, poets have known more about the healing power of the human heart than cardiologists.

The science coming from the field of neurocardiology, much of it from the work done at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California, is demonstrating the healing power of the human heart. The heart has the power to enhance our intelligence and intuition, while lowering stress, anxiety, anger, and blood pressure. The heart has been shown to strengthen our immune response by raising circulating levels of the IgA antibody. It also has the power to create emotional clarity, enhance creativity and balance hormones. It’s the heart’s balancing influence on the brain and the autonomic nervous system that explains in part, the comprehensive healing impact of the heart.

A significant discovery is that the beat-to-beat changes measured in the heart rhythm (known as heart rate variability) reflect emotional states more accurately than changes in skin measurements or even brain wave changes. Negative or stressful emotional states produce a more random or disorganized beat pattern, while positive emotions create a very orderly, or ‘coherent’ heart rate variability pattern. It’s the coherent pattern that inhibits the stress response, or the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, while activating the parasympathetic division that’s responsible for the healing benefits mentioned earlier.

Another important finding sheds light on how we can learn to reduce emotional reactivity by cultivating a coherent heart rhythm. Our perception can be habitually routed through the amygdala, a portion of the brain that’s assessing incoming perceptions based on past emotional threats. This is the style of perception that triggers emotional reactivity and ‘stink’n think’n’. We can be reacting to imagined or remembered threats that are no longer appropriate. A coherent heart rhythm, on the other hand, allows new perceptions to bypass the amygdala in favor of the pre-frontal cortex, where perceptions can be evaluated and responded to free of unwarranted emotionality. The pre-frontal area helps us to appreciate just being in the moment, just being here now.

Your heart produces electromagnetic signals …. similar to homeopathic remedies …. that guide your health for better or worse.

The quality of your heart rate variability is reflected in the electromagnetic field produced by the heart. Information from this field is imprinted into your blood with each heart beat and is communicated to your fifty trillion or so cell membranes. The point is, a coherent heart beat …. reflecting calm, peace, gratitude, or joy …. has a very positive effect on gene expression and ultimately on your health. A less than coherent heart rhythm …. reflecting anger, worry, anxiety, or hopelessness …. has a negative impact on the expression of your genes …. and ultimately on your capacity for healing.

If the heart has such great healing potential, then why are we so stressed and sick?

We live in a culture where we’re encouraged to distance ourselves from our heart felt feelings and the guidance they offer us. We’ve become alienated from the wisdom of our hearts and bodies, and live instead in our heads, cut off from the heart’s healing wisdom. We distract and distance ourselves from our feelings because we were never taught how to experience our feelings, and the energy they contain, in a way that allows them to support us, to balance us, and to lead us more powerfully forward in life. Most of us have been programmed from childhood to unconsciously resist and judge feelings as if they were symptoms that needed to be eliminated, when in fact, they are integral aspects of our self-regulating capacity. The research emerging from the field of neurocardiology continues to validate our self-healing potential.

Hopefully, this information about the self-healing and self-regulating power of the heart will encourage us to be more conscious of the moment to moment thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that ultimately create our biology. Ideally, we’ll also be reminded to consistently practice the self-healing modalities of our choice that best create the coherent heart beat….that leads to epigenetic changes….that creates a biology that’s favorable to healing, health and wholeness.

Steven Templin, D.O.M.

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