As a psychologist, coach, human being, and grade A people watcher, I have devoted a lot of time observing and educating myself on body language. I offer several workshops and talks through Roll Models that cover the topic of body language/nonverbal communication from numerous angles, so today I am going to focus on one specific body language cue. It is one of the most powerful, often used, and one of my favorite nonverbal signals. This post goes to the smile.
Smiling is one of very few body language cues that is nearly universal. No matter what age, gender, or culture you belong, you smile to show the emotion of happiness. Populations completely separate from modern societal norms even recognize this signal. Infants learn to smile very early also. Not only do we smile when we feel happy, but by smiling, we can actually create feelings of happiness in ourselves and others (Try it! Just sit and smile and see how you feel.). Additionally, when a stranger smiles at us on the street or in the hotel lobby, we almost instinctively smile back.
Smiling involves two distinct muscle groups. The first, most obvious group are the muscles around the mouth, the zygomaticus major, that pull the corners of the mouth up and back. The second muscle group are the muscles around the outside of the eyes that narrow the eyes slightly, the orbicularis oculi, that cause the “crow’s feet” wrinkles most women loathe. This second set of muscles are nearly impossible to contract voluntarily, and that is why when we fake a smile it often looks a little off, since only half of the true action is being performed. As an interesting historical note, much of the physiology of the smile was learned by a French scientist, Guillaume Duchenne, who used heads that had been freshly guillotine for his studies. Gruesome, but a little cool too, right?
Now that you know how we smile, I will give you a few reasons why you should smile. As I already mentioned, smiling creates feelings of happiness in you by causing the brain to produce more neurochemicals such as epinephrine and oxytocin. If you need more motivation than feeling happier, you will also be perceived by others as warmer, more attractive, and trustworthy (this is called a “halo effect”). It has also been shown that people can tell whether someone is smiling while talking on the phone, which means it also must positively influence vocal intonation and/or word choice. All in all, some pretty good support for those smilers among us.
I make it a point to remind myself to smile anytime I catch myself in a neutral facial expression. Not a full on “cheeser” grin, but a subtle “Buddha smile”. Not only does it cost me nothing, but it usually makes me feel happier, more positive, and approachable. I challenge all of you fellow Roll Models to try this for a few days and let me know what happens. 🙂