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An Exercise on Happiness: The Physiology of a Smile

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We've all heard the old adage "it takes 43 muscles to frown, and just 17 to smile," a fact that of course begs the question: Why don't we all smile more often? We know that a smile can light up someone else's day as well as our own, but still, it seems that these days smiles are in short supply. And let's face it, there are those days when you flash a smile at a stranger hoping for one in return, and the only response you elicit is a deeper scowl and a look of confusion.

A smile, by all accounts, is universal -- a language without words, a communication that requires no translation. No matter where you are, a smile can speak volumes when you cannot. In the deepest, darkest corners of the world where refugees struggle to survive, and where I arrive, a stranger who doesn't speak the language, a genuine smile introduces me more purely than announcing my name ever will. My smile declares that I am eager and open and interested, and that I am there to work alongside them. A genuine smile transcends, well, everything -- religion, politics, and even borders. None of that matters in the sudden burst of an unexpected smile.

And a smile provides more than comfort for ourselves or someone else. A smile releases endorphins, those happiness signals that surge through our bodies and brains and convince our inner selves that we are happy, confident and satisfied, and when we take the time to direct a genuine smile at another person, our endorphins spin through our brains and we feel almost immediately a tiny ripple of happiness. Try it -- no matter your mood, smile. And then smile again -- and like magic, you'll feel the first stirrings of happiness. It's hard to fight the effects of a simple smile, and harder still to frown when you feel good.

Now, try a smile on that perpetually snarling person you see each morning on the bus or the street. Whatever sadness or worry lurks behind their sulking scowl a smile can often, at the very least, ease that scowl into a tiny bit of a grin. It won't always work -- there are those who will look at you as though you are quite mad before they scurry away. But there are so many more, myself included, who will welcome the warmth that a smile provides. Try it on that coworker who seems weighed down, shoulders slumped, eyes and mouth pulled into a permanent pout. And, more likely than not, the recipient will smile in turn, and that smile will make your endorphins swell with the joy that only a smile can provide.

Smile as often as you can. Smile at a friend, a lover, a stranger, or smile to yourself -- the most powerful smile of all because if you exude joy, you spread joy.

It does take effort to smile, to be engaged in your world, in your surroundings, but once you smile, the rewards are endless. So with that in mind, consider the first smile of your day your first and most important workout. Your heart and your mind will be the better for it.

For more on happiness, click here.

For more by Roberta Gately, click here.

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