The Power of the Smile

"If you're not using your smile, you're like a man with a million dollars in the bank and no checkbook." –Les Giblin

Picture Julia Roberts. What's the first image that comes to your mind? I'd bet the cost of a new toothbrush it's that powerhouse smile of hers. The one that not only lights up the screen, but seems to light up Ms. Roberts as well. Whether or not you're a fan of the bright and talented actress (I am), it's hard to deny the resonant beauty of that smile.

Although most of us can't claim to have the physical access of Julia Roberts, we each possess a smile that's potentially as luminous and valuable as hers. The smile is an amazingly powerful possession. It's an external reflection of our inner state of mind and being.

Marketers have long known the power of a smile to sell a product. Think about the sweet smile on those Gerber babies' faces. Or the bright, beatific grins worn by the Certs twins ("They're two, two, two mints in one!"). But the power of the smile is not something that belongs only to celebrities. It's yours and it can improve your life, maybe even help you become happier and more successful.

Smile 101

Aristotle said that "Among all animals, only human beings can smile." As infants, we experience the world through our mouths, explains the dentist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Nadine Levinson. Breast-feeding, she writes, "is the prototype of the oral/emotional link between mother and infant." By about three months, the social smile emerges. By about six months, babies place objects in their mouths as a way to explore and learn about the outside world.

Babies even under a year reserve their best smiles for those closest to them, delighting parents, grandparents and siblings with a sense of joyful connectedness. Years later, when a grandparent or parent dies, chances are that the smile of that loving adult remains in the mind of the now-grown "baby" forever.

Throughout our lives, we use the smile and other facial expressions to communicate on multiple levels. We use it to flirt, to assert, to tease, to reassure and to promise. In is book The Human Face, Brian Bates notes that "Facial expressions seem to be one of nature's inbuilt ways of communicating with others on a deep and immediate level." He explains that, in fact, non-verbal expression is more emotionally revealing than verbal exchange. "In speech we are able to cover up, to conceal, to lie- even to ourselves- about how we really feel."

Good For You, Too!

There seems to be no question that a smile makes us look better. There's also compelling evidence that suggests turning our lips up rather than down at the corners can make us feel better as well. The researchers Davis and Palladino noted the relationship between facial expression and emotional expression and behavior.

In one study, participants were instructed to hold a pencil in their mouths, either between their lips or between teeth. Members of the "teeth" group, who could smile during the experiment, rated cartoons funnier than the "lips" group, whose members could not smile.

According to a theory known as the facial feedback hypothesis, the involuntary movements associated with smiling drive emotional experience. New York psychotherapist Dr. Doe Lang says smiles are associated with a reduction in cortisol, a chemical that indicates the presence of stress and with an increase in mood-elevating endorphins.

A University of California study found that women who appeared to have the most natural, sincere smiles in their college yearbook pictures were happier in life 30 years later than those who smiled less in the old photos!

The very act of smiling is said to engage at least three major muscle groups, in turn increasing blood flow to the face and resulting in a pleasant, rosy glow. The restorative effects of laughing were pioneered by Norman Cousins who in the 1960s fought a rare, degenerative spinal disease with daily giggle sessions. He found that 15 minutes of vigorous laughter could produce two hours of pain-free sleep, and eventually completely reversed the illness.

Today a group called the Carolina Health and Humor Association ("Carolina Ha Ha") specializes in "humor programming," including bedside humor intervention for cancer patients.

There's Power in That Smile

Incredible things can, and do happen when people smile at one another. On a purely anecdotal level, it's easy to observe. I'm certain you've experienced one of those days when you were feeling particularly happy and flashed a big grin at total strangers on the street. What was the effect? More times than not you got a big grin right back. It may have been preceded by a momentary look of surprise, but it's undeniable that one smile begets another.

A 1984 study found that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings smiled more on camera when he was reporting on Ronald Regan than when he spoke about Walter Mondale, that year's presidential candidates. Subsequently, those who watched ABC News voted for Reagan over Mondale in significant numbers.

Dates, not votes, was the issue when the Safeway supermarket chain in the last 1990s instructed its employees to smile and greet customers with direct eye contact. Reportedly, 12 female Safeway employees ultimately filed grievances over the smile/eye contact policy. The problem? Their more affable approach resulted in propositions for dates by male customers!

It's well-known that pleasant-looking people often have an easier time attracting jobs and wealth than plainer looking types. In the best-selling book Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, (Hyperion, NYC), Stephen C. Lundin and his co-authors exhort readers to "choose your attitude." They note the potential of a smile to improve attitude at one's place of work. By flashing a smile as you come through the door in the morning, chances are that you'll have a much better day than your co-worker who started the day with a sour expression.

Change That Smile

Simply using your God-given smile more often will have positive benefits, maybe significant ones. It might help to change an expression of you by someone who assumed you were aloof just because you hesitated to smile. Or it might remind your teenagers that you really are a fun person. Increasing your smile quotient could even help you land a job or get a date!

But if you're like millions of people, you may lack confidence in your smile. Your teeth may be crooked or discolored. Or you may show a mouthful of gum every time you smile. If your smile does not satisfy you, change it! Of the 11 books I have authored or co-authored, the one most read, and I believe most helpful to people, is Change Your Smile (Quintessence, Carol Stream, Ill.).

The book is written from a consumer/problem-solving point of view. The idea is to present the options- and there are many- in a simple, clear-cut manner. Whatever means you choose to become familiar with the possibilities, visit your dentist with ideas and information you gather. Keep an open mind as you listen to his or her guidance as to the wisest, healthiest methods to improve your smile.

The answer may be as simple as bleaching, that is lightening your tooth color. Another simple strategy is reshaping the teeth through cosmetic contouring to achieve a more satisfying form. It's also possible today to reposition the teeth without submitting to a "mouth full of metal." The use of tooth-colored resins or porcelain can make a dramatic difference in your entire appearance. Even your gums, the frame of your smile, can be altered using cosmetic periodontal or orthognathic surgery.

Remember the only technically "perfect" smile is the one created by a dentist. This may or may not be what you wish, but each of us, even those with the loveliest natural smiles, have imperfections. Change them or live with them? The choice is yours!

Hold That Smile!

If I haven't yet given you a reason to smile, consider this: It takes 17 muscles to smile, but more than 43 to frown. So from a purely energy conservation point of view, there's no question as to the better choice!

When I was asked recently to serve as a judge is the Miss Atlanta Pageant, I was delighted to encounter a stage full of beautiful, talented young women. Each had a distinct style and personality. Yet universal among these beautiful women was their ability to use their smiles to brighten their countenance- to reach out to another individual with warmth and welcome. Although most of us will never walk down a runway, it's a skill we can use to add considerable benefit to our lives.