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 and that it won’t cost a cent, and it benefits 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, and includes 43 muscles (depending on how you count them; some are paired, for example). All are activated by a single nerve, the facial nerve, one of 12 nerves that come directly out of the brain. Scientists refer to them as the “muscles of facial expression”, because that is their job. They twist, tweak and contort our face so that we can communicate, beyond words. We need a spectacular body part to perform this extraordinary, complex role.
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, this means that I would have over 1000 unique facial expressions to share with each person on the planet. Or, I could use 300 million new expressions every day of my life. Whew!
In practice, even if our face could execute a small percentage of these gestures, our brains are not big 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 6 major emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger and disgust. Some researchers add contempt as a 7th. The reason we get 21 categories out of these 6 emotions is that some are compounded. For example, your face can show that you are happily surprised or sadly surprised. It is this remarkably nuanced communication repertoire that makes our face such a rich communication tool.
Of all these expressions, one stands out to have extraordinary benefits. Not surprisingly, it is the simple smile. There are a couple of synonyms such as grin and beam, and a much broader variety of real life smiles – the shy smile, the mellow smile, the smug grin, 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 first start with how it benefits others. Smiling is contagious. Research has proven, beyond doubt that 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 smiling photographs are enough to evoke happiness. This means that each time you smile at somebody else, you give him or her the list of benefits below that you also enjoy for yourself.
When you exercise the 20 plus smiling muscles in beautiful harmony, this is how you benefit personally:
- Better cardiovascular health: smiling reduces blood pressure which contributes to heart disease.
- Reduced stress: smiling releases dopamine, endorphins and the feel-good hormone serotonin that enhance mood and reduces the adverse effects of stress.
- Enhanced mood: independent of the above, the act of smiling makes you happy. Darwin 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 emotion, so smiling is a simple way to influence our mood and emotions for the better!
- 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.
- Better relationships: people that smile more have more stable and satisfying marriages and long-term relationships.
- Improved longevity: this is the ultimate evidence for the value of smiling. In a landmark study, scientists demonstrated how those who tended to smile lived longer than fake-smilers who lived longer than non-smilers. Pretty astounding!
Here then is my prescription for the most important exercise you will ever do (although don’t forget to do your 10,000 steps)!
- Speak face-to-face, using FaceTime or Skype rather than telephone when you can’t meet in person. Smile while talking.
- Walk into your daughter’s bedroom to talk (and smile) rather than sending a text message.
- Walk into your colleague’s office to talk (and smile) rather than sending an email.
- Use emoji’s if you text, or even better, use Snapchat (a smile without words is more valuable than words without a smile).
- Smile, smile and smile some more. Smile spontaneously, warmly, sincerely and generously, for yourself and for others!