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Beverley Golden

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Smile Power

Posted: 07/08/11 02:57 PM ET

When I was a little girl, I didn't smile very much. People would ask what was wrong with me. Believing I had so much to be happy about, they couldn't understand why I wasn't smiling more. But I continued to be the child who sat quietly, curiously observing the world, perhaps gathering stories that might become future articles like this one.

Then, as a young teen, I was given the unflattering nickname of "Bucky Beaver" by a mean-spirited classmate. I'm sure you can guess what that related to. There was good news and bad news here. The bad news was that a well-meaning dentist (maybe) told my parents that unless I had full top braces soon, I would forever have my Bucky Beaver smile. The good news? My parents couldn't afford the braces and I was left to see what nature would do without any outside help. Lucky for me, my teeth had a mind of their own and I ended up with a smile that I've often been told "was sure to break many hearts." I prefer to think that I haven't done that.

Now I find myself making up for lost time by smiling for no reason. I often notice that very few people smile "just because." The majority of people that I observe drift through their days with serious expressions plastered on their faces. The power of the smile came up in a recent conversation I had with my good friend, Nealon Hightower. He related his own experience, telling me that in his journey to shed 100 pounds of body fat, he noticed that when he would exercise, those around him had the most intense grimaces on their faces as they went about their exercise routines. He decided to try smiling and actually found that his exercise program became almost effortless. He realized that those stressed faces might just be making the workouts of others challenging to stick with. And he found that just by smiling often, his hunger would go away. I believe he was onto something here.

After this conversation, I started seeing references to the power of the smile everywhere I looked. I did my own research and found that this simple act, that is free for all of us to do every minute of every day, has some very strong scientific evidence proving how smiling has a myriad of benefits not only for us, but for others, as well.

Smiling is like music, a universal way of communicating. There is very little explanation needed to understand what a smile means. Paul Ekman, the world's leading expert on facial expression, discovered that smiles have the same meaning across all cultures, languages, and even time.

In a Ted.com talk by Ron Gutman, I was happy to hear him reveal that many of us do in fact, smile fairly frequently. More than 30 per cent of us smile more than 20 times a day and less than 14 per cent smile less than five times a day. Those who smile the most, no surprise here, are children; they smile an average of 400 times a day. We are actually born smiling, as 3-D ultrasound technology now can show that developing babies appear to even be smiling in the womb. A great way to come into the world.

Gutman's own experience, like Nealon's, showed him that the addition of smiling to his long distance running protocol, made a huge positive difference for him, leading him to then do extensive investigation into what he calls the "untapped power of smiling." He found scientific studies that offered very interesting findings. One that I also found quite intriguing, was the UC Berkeley 30-year study that examined the smiles of students from an old yearbook. The study measured their well-being and success throughout their lives. Those with the widest smiles ranked highest in predicting how fulfilling and long-lasting their marriages would be, how highly they would score on standardized tests of well-being and general happiness and how inspiring they would be to others. I guess I should check to see if I was smiling in my yearbook pictures...

For all the baseball lovers, a 2010 Wayne State University research project looked at the baseball card photos of major league players in 1952. They found that the span of a player's smile could predict the span of his life. Players who didn't smile in their pictures lived an average of only 72.9 years, while players with wide beaming smiles lived 79.9 years on average.

Being around someone who smiles can be contagious. Smiling stimulates our brain's reward mechanisms in a way that not even chocolate can match. It has been reported that it would take 2,000 chocolate bars to provide the same level of brain stimulation as one smile. Wow! So glad that I practice smiling, as I don't even like chocolate.

Smiling can actually make you healthier, too. Among the numerous benefits of smiling are the therapeutic effects of reducing stress hormone levels (like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine), and increasing health and mood enhancing hormone levels (like endorphins) and lowering blood pressure.

Smiling has many positive psychological benefits, too. When we smile, we appear more likable and polite and we're also perceived to be more competent and dependable. And it is actually easier to smile than to frown. A smile only takes 17 facial muscles but a frown requires 43. Smiling makes us look younger and more attractive too. Remember that your smile has to be genuine, from your heart, because the human brain is biologically programmed to spot a fake one. A spontaneous and authentic smile has to have some wrinklage around the eyes. As the saying goes, keep it real.

A great story a friend just told me related to her friend who was going to a high school reunion and was anxious about reconnecting with a long lost boyfriend. It seems that he was wanting to connect with her too, and the moment of recognition happened when they smiled. They knew each other by their smiles, even after all those years.

When I first heard about Operation Smile, I was very touched by the work they do with many of the 200,000 children born with severe cleft conditions each year.These children are often unable to eat, speak, socialize or smile, so this charitable organization offers surgery that "heals children's smiles." The joy I witnessed on the face of a child who after having surgery, can now smile, was very inspiring and made me wonder why those of us who have the option to smile whenever we chose to, often do not.

Personally, it makes me realize how happy I am to have found the power of smiling in my life and I keep making up for any time lost from my youth. Smiling is powerful, so pass one on. Keep smiling and remember the words Louis Armstrong sang... "When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you."

Are you smiling yet? I'd love to hear what it is that makes you smile!