06/05/2011 12:31 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2011

The Power in a Smile

Anne* was working hard trying to master an exercise in one of my recent tai chi classes. Her concentration was evident by the frown on her face and her rigidly held upper body. To help move her into a more relaxed state, I said two words: "Anne, smile!"

As a grin broke out on her face, Anne's entire demeanor shifted. Her stress-induced concentration was replaced by relaxed concentration. As she continued to smile, tension melted away in her shoulders and she moved with greater ease. Overall, Anne was clearly enjoying herself more and, in the process, getting more out of the exercise. All this from a simple smile!

I first ran across the amazing potential of a smile through the work of Mantak Chia, a Taoist master who brought many esoteric practices to the West in the 1980s. One of them is called the "inner smile." Years later while practicing tai chi, I discovered that putting a smile on my face shifted me into a more relaxed and present state. Since then, I have used smiling as a core teaching in my classes.

The power of a smile has nothing to do with your mood. If you put a smile on your face right now, chances are it will shift whatever mood you are in, and even your energy level, in a positive way.

Science is discovering some marvelous correlations between smiling and health. Ron Gutman, the founder and CEO of interactive health company HealthTap, reviewed a number of scientific studies on smiling in a March TED talk. In a 2010 Wayne State University study on 1950s baseball cards, they found the span of players' smiles could predict the span of their lives! A British study on pleasure inducers found one smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as 2,000 bars of chocolate. Researchers have found that smiling can reduce the level of stress-enhancing hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine, increase the level of mood-enhancing hormones and reduce blood pressure.

Ron also shared a simple equation gleaned from the research on smiling: smile + frown = smile (yes, smiling can be contagious).

A new company called Random Apps of Kindness has come up with a wonderful way to use smartphones to help remind us to put a smile on our faces (and more). Founder Haj Khalsa is the creator of the re-mindful app (which made its debut on on June 1). It can be programmed to randomly remind you to smile, breathe or just be. Haj says about the power of a smile: "Smiling is an easy and effective way to shift my mood to the positive. And yet I don't always do it. Sometimes the hardest part is the remembering. I hope that re-mindful will become a well used tool to bring more mindful moments to our daily lives."

Whether you remember to smile via a self-improvement practice, a smartphone app or any other way, the important thing to do is smile! When you do, you are treating yourself to a number of healthy benefits as well as cluing those around you that there is something to smile about!

*Note: Anne is not the real name of the student mentioned in the first paragraph.