On my digital medical chart there is a photo of me so that nurses and doctors can easily identify who I am. I chose to be photographed at the office of my oncology gynecologist with the biggest, open smile I can manage. I look like I’m having a blast and I want you to join in on the fun. Over the years the effect of that photograph has been noticeable and profound. Clerks at the hospital registrar, nurses, PAs and doctors have commented on that photo. They love it, and that is likely due to it being uncommon. Most people posing for a cancer hospital ID photograph for their personal charts are probably not grinning from ear to ear. I’ve noticed a more positive, happy tone from the nurses and doctors and my follow up visits are generally quite pleasant for all of us. My radiation oncologist told me yesterday that my visit was a happy start to the day.
So activate yours and everyone around you’s brain happiness circuitry and smile. Even when it hurts.
Smiling, as it turns out, has truly remarkable effects. First, doing it actually makes you feel good even if you’re not feeling good in the moment. A 2009 fMRI study out of Echnische Universität in Munich demonstrated conclusively that the brain’s happiness circuitry is activated when you smile (regardless of your current mood). If you’re down, smiling actually prompts your brain to produce feel-good hormones, giving credence to the adage, “fake it til you make it” when it comes to your state of mind.
Smiling is also a predictor of longevity. In a 2010 out of Wayne State University, researchers looked at Major League baseball card photos from 1952. They found that the span of a player’s smile actually predicted his lifespan — unsmiling players lived 72.9 years on average, while beaming players lived a full seven years longer.
Similarly, a 30-year longitudinal study out of UC Berkeley examined the smiles of students in an old yearbook, with almost spooky results. The width of students’ smiles turned out to be accurate predictors of how high their standardized tests of well-being and general happiness would be, how inspiring others would find them, even how fulfilling their marriages would end up. Those with the biggest smiles came up on top in all the rankings.
Finally, research demonstrates that when we smile, we look better to others. Not only are we perceived as more likable and courteous, but those who benefit from our sunny grins actually see us as more competent (something to keep in mind while giving presentations or interacting in the office).
Want to know where you stack up when it comes to smiling? Know this: under 14% of us smile fewer than 5 times a day (you probably don’t want to be in that group). Over 30% of us smile over 20 times a day. And there’s one population that absolutely dominates in the smile game, clocking in at as many as 400 smiles a day: children.