Just before a vacation in Jackson, Wyoming, she had learned what a fun response she could get from adults when she beamed a big smile and gave them an enthusiastic, “Hi!”
Whether we were sitting in a restaurant, browsing in an art gallery, or walking down the sidewalk, Megan delighted in greeting one stranger after another with her glad little smile.
And of course everyone returned her greeting with an equally cheerful, “Well, hello there!”
This was all very amusing to Corlette and me … until the afternoon I was walking alone down a deserted side street with Megan perched in a backpack looking over my shoulder. A huge man came around the corner and walked right toward us. A full-fledged Hells Angel. At least 250 pounds, leather jacket, chains, beard, tattoos and a scowl that said, “Stay outa my way!”
I was instantly nervous. The guy had a look that said “trouble,” and here I was with my little girl strapped to my back. I thought of turning around or crossing to the other side of the street, but was afraid such an obvious act of avoidance might provoke him. So I decided to walk past him as quickly as possible, hoping not to attract his attention.
Then I felt Megan shift on my back so she could see over my left shoulder. She had spotted her next target. “Oh, no,” I thought. “She’s going to irritate this guy, and he’s going to take it out on me.” My fear went up a notch, but all I could do was quicken my pace to get past him more quickly.
Then Megan beamed her big smile and let out an especially enthusiastic, “Hi!”
And the guy just melted.
I could not believe the instantaneous transformation. He stopped right in front of us. His scowl disappeared. He leaned toward Megan with warmth in his eyes and a smile that split his face, and said, “Hello, young lady.”
A simple smile had turned a scowling and ominous biker into a big, soft teddy bear.
We stood on the sidewalk talking for several minutes. He asked about Megan’s name and age, and warmly engaged us. She beamed and jabbered, to his obvious delight.
He and I enjoyed a few minutes of casual conversation, and then he softly touched Megan’s hand and said, “Good bye, Little One. You made my day.” As I watched him walk away, I was amazed to realize that my fear of this man had been replaced by a feeling of actual fondness.
All because of a little girl’s smile.
The Benefits of a Smile
Believe it or not, you and I have similar “smile power.” Probably not as much as a cute little toddler, but still far more than most of us realize or exercise. Here’s just a few insights that recent studies have revealed about the nature, power, and benefits of a smile.
- Smiling is a natural and universal human characteristic. It is common to all people groups, does not have to be taught, and is generally seen as a positive and reassuring gesture in cultures with stable and predictable social systems (but not in unstable and unpredictable cultures, such as Russia, India, and Iran).
- Smiling improves your health. It reduces levels of stress-enhancing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, increases levels of pain-killing endorphins and sleep-assisting serotonin, reduces blood pressure, and boosts your immune system. Smiling is a free and natural drug!
- Smiling makes you look more attractive, courteous, and approachable. People are more likely to trust, like, and seek assistance from a smiling person. When you smile, your face is saying, “All is well. I’m safe. Come and talk with me.”
- Smiling Improves Your Mood. It’s actually more difficult to think negative thoughts when you have a smile on your face, even if it’s forced.
- Smiling Is Contagious. One smiling person can change the mood of a room full of people. Why? Because when people see a smile, “mirror neurons” fire in their brains and evoke a similar neural response that makes them feel like they are smiling themselves … and pretty soon, they are.
- Smiling Makes You Look Younger. The muscles you use to smile actually lift your entire face and make you look younger. As Meryl Streep observed, “The best face-lift is a smile.”
- Smiling Makes You Look Competent and Successful. Smile and you will appear to be more confident, self-assured, accessible, and helpful. You are also more likely to be hired and promoted than people who have habitually blank faces or frowns. A smile has real financial value.
A Real Life Example
Practice Until It Becomes Natural
Even if you’re not a world-class smiler today, a little practice can make smiling a natural and enjoyable habit. Here’s four simple ways to get started.
- Decide to like people. It sounds silly, but it works. As you approach a person, think to yourself, “I like you!” More often than not, you’ll find your face moving into a natural smile … especially if you think of specific reasons that you like that person.
- Smile with your eyes. You can fake a smile with your mouth, but your eyes are essential for a genuine, warm smile (commonly called a “Duchenne smile”). Some people learn how to move the muscles around their eyes as a matter of will, but the best way to trigger this kind of “full-face” smile is to deliberately draw on positive memories and feelings toward the person you are engaging.
- Smile everywhere you go. In bed, when your smile is the first thing your spouse sees in the morning. In the kitchen, when your sleepy children walk in and give you a chance to set their mood for the day. In the grocery store … seriously. As you walk through the door, consciously put a smile on your face, and as you walk down the aisles, try to catch the eyes of people who walk toward you. You’ll be amazed at how often you’ll get a look of surprise and then a quick little smile. You just changed their mood. (Of course a woman needs to exercise caution before smiling at strange men.) At Starbucks and Wells Fargo … the barista and the teller may have had a hard day. At the office … your co-workers will love having you around. When you’re all alone … practice thinking thoughts that naturally trigger a smile, so that muscle memory makes it easy for your face to move into a relaxed and natural smile.
- Smile on the telephone. Really. Studies show that people can tell whether you’re smiling even when they can’t see your face. How? When you smile, the back of your mouth changes shape and makes the sound waves more fluid. When people hear that sound, they sense you are happy to talk with them, and guess what? They feel happy to talk with you. A friend of mine is so convinced of this dynamic that he has installed mirrors in front of his salesmen’s desks to remind them to smile as they engage their clients.
A smile costs you nothing, but it can win you great rewards and change the mood of those you encounter throughout your day, whether it’s a critical spouse, a grumpy child, a discouraged co-worker or a weary store clerk.
If my daughter could change the heart of a Hells Angel with her little smile, just think of the lives you could touch with yours.
- Think of a person who smiles easily and naturally. What feelings are triggered when you think of that person? Do you think those feelings have anything to do with the fact that that person is typically smiling? Why?
- Smiling is the first and easiest step in the SERVE acrostic. How does smiling open up the way for the other steps to occur? (Smile, Explore and Empathize, Reconcile, Value, and Encourage)?
- Which of the seven benefits of smiling would you most like to experience? Why?
- In what settings are you going to practice smiling more this week? Who do you hope to encourage through your smiles? How do you hope it will affect their day?
- Select one of the four ways to practice smiling and do it consistently for thirty days. Then select another. And another. In four months, all four practices could become habits.
- If you want to dig deeper into the significance and complexity of smiling, see 19 Types of Smile
Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.
© 2014 Ken Sande
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