The Power of Smiling
Smiling can change the way you experience the world. And how you experience the world determines the actions you take and the results you get in life.
From time to time, I have the opportunity to speak to large groups, typically at companies where I am advising the CEO and senior leadership team. The topic I usually pick is something I call the Architecture of Performance. Its basic message is that there is a hidden architecture that underlies the performance of most great leaders and companies. Part of the secret to extraordinary performance, I argue, is the intentional leveraging of our physiology. I offer that by consciously opening up our bodies, we prime our brains to be at their best. For those in the audience who need data, I talk about the science of neurophysiology and the enormous amount of research establishing a strong connection between physiology and performance. The exercise that has the most resonance, however, is experiential in nature. I ask participants to stand up, raise both hands in the air, and smile as if they’re having the best time of their lives. While doing all of this, I ask them to try to think of a negative thought. Not a single person can. Such is the power of physiology. Assuming a powerful posture or simply smiling can change the way you experience the world. And how you experience the world determines the actions you take and the results you get in life.
While the body of research around the effects of smiling, like any area of inquiry, is far from conclusive, my favorite study is the one that examined the baseball cards of deceased Major League Baseball players. The researchers put cards into one of three categories – those that were smiling, those that were partially smiling, and those that weren’t smiling at all. They then looked at the average lifespans of all three groups. The players who were fully smiling lived an average of 7.2 years longer than those who hadn’t. I know, I know. Correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation. That’s why I trust my own experience. When I smile, I feel better. And when I feel better, good things tend to happen.
I was inspired to write about smiling because I have found myself smiling a lot at babies lately. On a plane, in line at the grocery store, wherever. Perhaps it’s because I’m about to become an empty nester and I’m missing that part of parenthood that now is clearly behind me. But I think the reason I’m doing so is much simpler. When I smile at a baby, guess what happens? The baby immediately lights up and smiles from ear to ear. What an incredible superpower the smile is. With one simple act, I can let an innocent child know that the world can be a safe and happy place. And here’s the thing about physiology. It's reciprocal in nature. What the baby feels, I begin to feel instantly too.
We have this weird thing in our culture about smiling. I often hear people say that it doesn’t feel authentic. I kindly remind them that the last time any of us were truly authentic was when we were a young child looking out at the world with awe and wonder. I think I’m on a bit of a crusade to smile more and have the world reciprocate. That feels like the most authentic thing I can do.