This morning, as I walked along the beachside promenade, I flipped smiles casually to passersby. Some people looked away probably presuming I’m a psychopath, but often people smiled back. When I got a “hi” or “good morning” it was a like hitting a little feel-good jackpot because it’s hard to know precisely how you’ll be received when you smile at strangers.
When I began this ‘Smile Experiment,’ I felt like a bit of a dick trying to catch people’s eye to beam at them. We’re mostly conditioned to keep to ourselves. We tend to stay in our own little bubble, always thinking about the next thing we need to be doing, or that hilarious comeback we should have said yesterday amongst other brain chatter.
Volunteering to actively smile at as many strangers as possible and document the experience is definitely going against that conditioning.
Seven days in and I’m a boss level grinner who is pumped about connecting with other humans. My focus has broadened, and as a Grade A pervy pants I’ve realised a dashing smile gives you full permission to check people out. Unless you smile a creepy smile. Don’t be creepy.
Smiling at strangers didn’t come easily at first. The first day of the experiment I was worried I would look like a maniac. I mean, who smiles at every stranger they meet? No one normal in my experience.
Perhaps my biggest faux pas on Day One was beginning whilst wearing only a bikini. In my defence, I was at the beach and not the local Westfield, however, flashing your pearly whites at randoms whilst half nude is somewhat confronting. Dudes didn’t know where to look but ladies were pretty receptive- Unless I was smiling at their dude and then it was a bit awkward.
But I didn’t give in. All in the name of science, right?
I had another crack with clothes on and it went much more smoothly. In fact, I began to notice something happening in my physiology. I was beginning to enjoy myself. It was making me feel happier. My shoulders felt straighter, my head felt higher. I could hear “zipidee doo dah” playing in my head as I sauntered along.
I liked smiling. I felt like smiling. I liked being smiled at.
A smile is a funny thing. Essentially, it’s the pulling back and up of the lips and the bearing of the teeth, but it’s not just lip service (if you’ll pardon the pun.) Smiling sets off fireworks in the brain says positive psychologist and founder of The Happiness Institute, Dr Tim Sharp AKA Dr Happy.
“Smiling sends messages to the brain that are good for your health and happiness. Smiling leads to the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, that reduce stress and other “negative emotions” such as frustration and anger, and also boost “positive emotions” such as happiness,” says Dr Sharp.
In my extensive seven-day research I discovered the ratio of people who instantly smile back to those look away to those is about 5:1. Although research suggests that smiling people instantly appear more attractive, more trustworthy and relaxed, this is not necessarily why people smile back at you.
We return the smile because most of us can’t help it. We subconsciously mimic the expression we receive. It’s effortless. Conversely, if you smile at someone who does not return the smile that takes conscious effort.
“When we see someone smile, ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain respond and, as their name suggests we ‘mirror’ or copy the emotion we see. So this is why happiness can be contagious. As for why some people look away, there could be many explanations for this but it might be a symptom of social anxiety,” Dr Sharp explains.
As far as the adage “fake it til you make it” goes it seems it’s entirely true for smiling. While feeling joy and happiness inspires smiling, so too does smiling inspire happiness.
“Repeated smiling boosts one’s mood and the mood of those around him or her. This, in turn, will typically lead to an upwardly, self-reinforcing cycle of positivity,” confirms Dr Sharp.
Dr Sharp believes if everyone smiled more we would live in a happier and kinder and more connected world, but there is a multitude of behaviours and habits we can and should adopt to improve our happiness and the world in general.
He is possibly referring us being more mindful, less sedentary, getting plenty of sleep and generally not being dicks to each other, but if the tiny act of smiling at each other makes the smallest difference in the world, it’s really not a hard place to start.
This article was first published here on Whimn.com.au