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What if I taught you a single exercise that worked more than 20 muscles and improved your health and happiness? What if I told you that you could do it anywhere, anytime; that it wouldn’t cost a cent; and that it would benefit those around you? What if I told you that those who do it with the greatest intensity are rewarded with the longest lives?

You might be surprised to learn that the face is a highly mobile body part housing 43 muscles. Scientists refer to these muscles as the “muscles of facial expression” because that is their job. They twist, tweak, and contort our faces so that we can engage in nonverbal communication.

In theory, if you were to do the math on the number of unique facial gestures each of us could make, the figure would be an astounding 8.8 trillion! That is 8.8 followed by 12 zeros. With a global population of about 8 billion humans, this means that I would have over 1,000 unique facial expressions to share with each person on the planet. Or, I could use more than 300 million new expressions every day of my life. Whew! For all intents and purposes, we have an infinite range of facial expressions.

In practice, even if we could coordinate our faces well enough to execute all these gestures, our eyes and brains are not sophisticated enough to interpret each discrete nuance. Instead, scientists and computers are able to decipher 21 unique, consistently differentiable categories of facial gesture. We can break these down further to six major emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, and disgust (and some researchers add contempt as a seventh). The reason we get 21 categories out of these emotions is that some are compounded. For example, your face can show that you are happily surprised or sadly surprised. It is this nuanced communication repertoire that makes our faces such rich communication tools.

Of all these expressions, one stands out as having astonishing benefits for us: the simple smile.

Of course, the “simple” smile comes in a very wide variety of discretely recognizable versions: the beam, the shy smile, the smug smirk, the naughty grin, and many more. They are all good for you—even a fake smile, although it’s only half as good as an authentic smile.

How does this fundamental expression of happiness benefit us? Let’s start with how it benefits others. Smiling is contagious. Research has proven, beyond doubt, that seeing a smile induces others to smile. This is as true with family and friends as it is with perfect strangers. In fact, the power of this life force is so strong that photographs of smiling faces are enough to evoke happiness in their viewers. This means that, each time you smile at somebody else, you give them the list of benefits below that you also enjoy for yourself.

When you exercise your 20-plus smiling muscles in beautiful harmony, this is how you (and the ones you smile at) benefit:

  1. Better cardiovascular health. Smiling reduces blood pressure, which contributes to a decrease in heart disease.
  2. Reduced stress. Smiling releases dopamine, endorphins, and the feel-good hormone serotonin, which enhance mood and reduce the adverse effects of stress.
  3. Enhanced mood. Independent of the above, the act of smiling makes you happy. As far back as 1872, Charles Darwin, in his book titled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, was the first scientist to recognize that “even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” Modern researchers know this as the “facial feedback hypothesis.” It is much easier to control our muscles than our emotions, so smiling is a simple way to brighten our mood.
  4. Enhanced attractiveness. Research has shown many times over that a smiling face is more attractive to others than a non-smiling face. Whether you’re trying to find a mate, work well with colleagues, or simply live more easily, smiling works.
  5. Better relationships. People who smile more have more stable and satisfying marriages and long-term relationships.
  6. Improved longevity. This is the ultimate evidence for the value of smiling. In a landmark study published in 2010 in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science1, researchers demonstrated how those who flash authentic smiles lived longer than fake-smilers who lived longer than non-smilers.

You might argue that we’re living through times in which it is difficult to smile. Think of all the political division, racial tensions, and pandemic distancing we are experiencing in this country at the moment. It is a time fraught with trouble and disunity.

But now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we do smile. How many problems could be solved and how much better would we be able to work together if we just smiled at one another? Not only is it good for “them”; it has profound value for “us,” too.

Here, then, is my prescription for the most important exercise you will ever do:

  1. Speak face to face, using a video chat program rather than the telephone when you can’t meet in person. Smile while talking.
  2. Walk into your child’s bedroom to talk (and smile) rather than sending a text message.
  3. Walk into your colleague’s office to talk (and smile) rather than sending an email.
  4. Use emojis if you text or, even better, use Snapchat. A smile without words is more valuable than words without a smile.
  5. Smile, smile, and smile some more. Smile spontaneously, warmly, sincerely, and generously, for yourself and for others!

1Abel, E. L., & Kruger, M. L. (2010). Smile intensity in photographs predicts longevity. Psychological Science, 21(4), 542-544.