The Smile Epidemic

laughing woman photo

The Smile. It’s a reaction we learn to make as babies, when we begin to recognize the familiar faces that decorate our small corner of the universe, and the first outward sign of happiness and delight as we begin to understand the world around us. We smile and the world smiles back at us. One might even call it infectious.

If you are like a lot of folks, the alarm goes off and the first thing you get bombarded with is the news of the day. Whether it’s natural disasters, like earthquake or hurricane damage, political infighting or the traffic and weather report that makes an upcoming commute akin to a nightmare, starting the day with a smile is going to be a bit of a challenge. It would be easy to let the world change your smile.

In his 2006 best seller, “Stumbling on Happiness,” Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert surveyed the research on the subject of happiness, and revealed some of the mistakes we make in imagining how happy – or not – we believe we will be. Among his illuminations is the fact that human beings seem to be happiest when faced with a challenge. This is why organizations succeed best when employees work toward goals that are difficult, but not out of reach. (See research on goal-setting from Dr. Gary Latham, University of Toronto.)

Surprisingly, it isn’t the intensity of positive experiences that predicts happiness; it is the frequency of those experiences. According to Dr. Barbara Frederickson, a minimum ratio of three positive experiences to one negative seems to be the tipping point toward happiness. So, someone who has a dozen average nice things happen is likely to be a lot happier than someone who had one intense happy event. This is where the smile effect comes in. We can create those average nice things ourselves, and the initiator can be that smile.

For today, let’s try a small scientific experiment: As you are walking down the street, in the office, in the grocery store or on the plant floor – all socially distanced – smile at those coming your way. Then note what you get back. It’s almost a sure bet that you will get a smile in return, nearly every time. It works on video conference calls, too. Even behind a mask, you’ll be able to tell if you are getting a smile back. Eyes twinkle, cheeks rise, shoulders relax. And if it works today – or even if it doesn’t work today – try the experiment again tomorrow.

As Professor Gilbert remarked, “Science will soon be able to tell us how to live the lives we want, but it will never tell us what kinds of lives we should want to live. That will be for us to decide.” So, go ahead, make the decision and face the day with a smile. You’ll be happier for it, and it may be catching. And wouldn’t that be a wonderful epidemic to start!