The Power of Positive Facial Expressions: Why Smiling Surprisingly Matters More than you think

Summary

Throughout history, humans have always faced a range of emotions, like happiness, sadness, excitement, and stress. However, in today’s world, with the rise of professional and personal challenges, the situation has become even more severe. Regardless of age, people worldwide are experiencing higher levels of stress. In such an environment, where professionals are constantly evaluated based on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and the world is undergoing unprecedented change, we must appreciate the simple things we can do to transition into a more peaceful, less stressful, and positive way of living. In this article, Dr. Mythili Kolluru, a seasoned writer and strategy consultant, explores the productive power of a simple facial expression: the smile.

Introduction

A smile is a facial expression that involves curving the corners of the mouth upward, often accompanied by the raising of the cheeks and the appearance of the crow’s feet around the eyes. It is typically associated with positive emotions such as happiness, joy, amusement, friendliness, and satisfaction. Smiling can be a spontaneous reaction to something pleasurable or a deliberate expression to communicate warmth, kindness, or agreement. Smiles can vary in intensity, ranging from a subtle, gentle smile to a broad, beaming grin. Smiling is a universal human behavior and is often considered a nonverbal form of communication that can convey emotions, establish rapport, and create a positive social atmosphere.

Working in academia can be highly demanding and stressful. I once had a colleague, whom I’ll call Sarah (fictitious name), who would often visit our office during break times or on her way to class. Every time she came in, she seemed dissatisfied and would complain about her workload, raising her daughter, and various issues with her students.

Despite my challenges, I always greeted Sarah with a warm and genuine smile, whether during the late-night hours of the day or during peak exam times. I believed in the power of a smile and wanted to offer a small moment of positivity amidst the stress. Over time, I noticed a change in Sarah’s demeanor. She began to seek me out more frequently, and after our conversations, she would leave my room looking uplifted and energized. On her last day before leaving due to her family’s relocation, Sarah hugged me and expressed her deep gratitude.

She thanked me for infusing a smile into her day and for its profound positive impact on her life. She shared that she could now approach difficult situations with a newfound ability to smile. Her words resonated deeply with me, reminding me of the incredible power of such a simple gesture. Inspired by this experience, I realized that many people are unaware of the immense influence a smile can have. It prompted me to write an article on the power of positive facial expressions, hoping to inspire readers to recognize the transformative effect of a smile in their own lives.

Through my article, I aim to encourage others to embrace the power of a smile, spreading kindness and positivity even in the face of challenges. It’s a small but impactful way to make a difference in the lives of those around us. In sharing this personal anecdote, I want to motivate readers to act and bring more smiles into the world, fostering a more positive and supportive environment for everyone.

A collage of people smiling

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Source: The smile experiment conducted by Mythili Kolluru. Photography courtesy Al Baidaq Photoshop Research based implications 

Studies have shown that smiling can trigger the release of endorphins in the brain, which are natural feel-good chemicals. It can improve mood and reduce stress levels. For example, a study published in Psychological Science found that even forcing a smile can decrease stress levels and increase positive affect. Nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions, is essential to social interaction. Smiling can communicate friendliness, openness, and approachability, and research has shown that people who smile are perceived as likable and trustworthy.

For example, a study published in Emotion found that people who smiled more during a social interaction were perceived as more competent and friendly by their conversation partners. Another example was a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin journal. found that women who smiled in their online dating profile photos were perceived as more attractive and approachable than women who did not smile.

Smiling can help relax tension in facial muscles, and research has shown that facial feedback from smiling can improve mood and reduce stress levels. For example, a study published in Personality and Social Psychology found that people who held a Duchenne smile (a genuine smile that involves the muscles around the eyes) while performing a stressful task had lower heart rates and reported less stress than those who held a neutral facial expression.

Smiling has been shown to boost the immune system by increasing the production of white blood cells, which can help fight infections and diseases. For example, a study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people exposed to a stressful situation had higher levels of white blood cells if they engaged in a positive activity (such as watching a funny video) compared to those who engaged in a neutral activity. Overall, scientific evidence suggests that smiling can have various psychological and physiological benefits, and it is a simple yet powerful tool that can improve well-being and social interactions.

Research based implications

Some evidence suggests that people who smile less may be more prone to depression and other well-being issues. For example, a study published in Psychological Science found that individuals instructed to hold a neutral facial expression while viewing a series of positive images showed less positive affect, reduced physiological arousal, and increased depressive symptoms compared to those allowed to smile naturally. Similarly, another study published in Personality and Social Psychology found that individuals who expressed fewer positive emotions, including smiling, reported higher depressive symptoms and lower life satisfaction over time.

Happiness

Happiness is a complex and multifaceted emotion that is influenced by a variety of factors. While smiling can indicate happiness and positive feelings, it is not necessarily a cause of happiness. Research has shown that intentionally engaging in positive activities, such as smiling or expressing gratitude, can positively impact well-being and happiness over time. For instance, a study published in Positive Psychology found that participants who engaged in a gratitude exercise wrote down things they were thankful for and experienced increased happiness and life satisfaction over six weeks (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

However, it’s important to note that the relationship between smiling and well-being is complex and may be influenced by various factors, including individual differences in personality, social context, and cultural expectations. While some evidence suggests that people who smile less may be more prone to depression and other well-being issues, it is not a definitive predictor. More research is needed to understand the relationship between smiling and well-being fully.

Source: The smile experiment conducted by Mythili Kolluru, Photography courtesy Al Baidaq Photoshop Smile your way to productivity

One study published in the Academy of Management found that employees who smiled more frequently had higher customer service performance ratings than those who smiled less regularly. The study also found that the positive effect of smiling on customer service performance was more robust for employees with more frequent customer interactions. Another study published in Personnel Psychology found that supervisors who smiled more frequently had employees who reported higher levels of job satisfaction and organizational commitment. The study also found that the positive effect of a supervisor smiling on employee job satisfaction was more substantial for employees who perceived their supervisor as warm and friendly. In addition to these studies, research suggests that positive affect (which can be induced by smiling) is associated with increased creativity, cognitive flexibility, and problem-solving ability, which can be essential for employee productivity. However, the relationship between smiling and employee productivity may not be direct. 

There is evidence to suggest that smiling can positively affect customer service performance, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment, which could potentially have a positive impact on employee attendance all of which can contribute to overall productivity. For example, a study published in Organizational Behavior found that employees who experienced more positive emotions, including smiling and laughter, at work reported higher levels of job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Similarly, a study published in Business and Psychology found that employees who perceived their supervisors as displaying positive emotions, such as smiling and friendliness, were more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction and lower intentions to quit.   While these studies do not directly examine the relationship between smiling and employee absenteeism, they suggest that positive emotions and social interactions may be related to improved workplace outcomes, which could potentially have an impact on employee attendance.

Smile your way to productivity

Smiling is generally associated with positive attitudes in the workplace, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, perceived support, and leadership effectiveness. A study published in Occupational Health Psychology found that employees who reported experiencing more positive emotions at work, including from smiling and laughter, also reported higher levels of job satisfaction (Sonnentag et al., 2012).

Study published in Vocational Behavior found that employees who reported experiencing more positive emotions at work, including from smiling and laughter, also reported higher levels of organizational commitment (Ozer & Erdogan, 2013). A study published in Occupational Health Psychology found that employees who perceived their colleagues and supervisors as displaying positive emotions, including smiling, reported feeling more supported in the workplace (Ducharme et al., 2017). Study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that leaders who displayed positive emotions, including smiling, were perceived as more effective by their subordinates (Sy et al., 2005).

These studies provide evidence for the relationship between smiling and organizational attitudes. However, it is important to note that the relationship between smiling and these attitudes is complex and can be influenced by a variety of factors, including individual differences in personality and cultural expectations.

Diverse cultural perceptions on smiling

Smiling can have different cultural perceptions and meanings across the world. In many Western cultures, such as the United States, smiling is generally seen as a positive and friendly gesture and is often used to express happiness or to put others at ease. Some Asian cultures, such as Japan, smiling can be seen as a sign of politeness and respect rather than necessarily an expression of happiness or friendliness.

In some Middle Eastern cultures, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, smiling may not be as common in public spaces as in Western cultures. However, it is still seen as a friendly and positive gesture in more informal settings. In some African cultures, such as Nigeria and Ghana, smiling is often a sign of hospitality and welcome and can be seen as creating social connections with others. In some South American cultures, such as Brazil and Colombia, smiling is often seen as a way of expressing warmth and affection and is used frequently in social interactions.

Eastern European cultures

In some Eastern European cultures, such as Russia and Poland, smiling in public is not as common as in Western cultures. It may be seen as a sign of insincerity or being overly friendly. In some Nordic countries, such as Finland and Sweden, smiling is generally reserved for close friends and family and is not as commonly used in public spaces or with strangers. Some Mediterranean cultures, such as Italy and Greece, smiling is often used to express warmth and hospitality and is frequently used in social interactions.

In some South Asian cultures, such as India and Pakistan, smiling can be seen as a sign of shyness or modesty and may not be used as frequently in public spaces as in Western cultures. Some cultures, such as those found in Australia and New Zealand, smiling may not be as commonly used as a form of nonverbal communication, and other nonverbal cues, such as eye contact and body language, maybe emphasized instead.

In some East Asian cultures, such as China and Korea, smiling may not be used as frequently in public spaces, especially among strangers or formal settings, and is often reserved for close friends and family. Some African cultures, such as Ethiopia and Somalia, smiling may signify immaturity or lack of seriousness. It may be used less frequently in formal or professional settings. In some South Pacific cultures, such as Fiji and Tonga, smiling is often used to express respect and humility and can be seen as a sign of deference to authority figures or elders.

Few examples

These are just a few examples of how smiling can be perceived differently across cultures. It is important to note that cultural perceptions towards smiling can also vary within a country or region. Individual differences in personality and mood can also influence how people perceive and respond to smiling. It is important to remember that cultural perceptions are not fixed or absolute and can be affected by various factors, including historical, social, and political contexts. It’s essential to remember that cultural norms and expectations vary significantly worldwide, and what might be considered polite or friendly behavior in one culture could be perceived as inappropriate or even offensive in another.

The smiling experiment

In my experiment on the power of smiling using social media platforms, I aimed to collect 50 smiling faces and gather feedback on the significance of smiling. Surprisingly, I received only 21 smiling pictures, but the remaining 29 participants shared their valuable feedback instead of submitting their smiles visually. While I had hoped for more submitted pictures, the insights from all 50 participants were still enlightening. The 21 individuals who bravely shared their beaming portraits reminded me of the profound impact of a genuine smile. Their contributions demonstrated how simple a simple conveys happiness, warmth, and fosters connections.

Overall, the analysis of all 50 respondents feedback emphasized the positive effects of smiling on individuals and recipients alike, including uplifting spirits, fostering unity, diffusing tension, building trust, reducing stress, and creating welcoming environments. Despite falling short of the desired number of visual submissions, the experiment reinforced the power of a smile. It showcased the ability of a simple facial expression to create a positive ripple effect, connecting people and enhancing emotional well-being.

Concluding Remarks 

The power of a smile should never be underestimated. Throughout this article, I have explored the research-based implications of smiling, its impact on productivity, the experiment on smiling, and the diverse cultural perceptions surrounding this universal expression. Science has shown that a simple smile can profoundly affect our well-being, reducing stress levels, enhancing positive emotions, improving productivity, impacting organizational attitudes, and fostering better social connections.

Whether in the workplace or in our daily interactions, a genuine smile can uplift our mood and positively influence those around us. By embracing the power of a smile, we can create a more harmonious and inclusive environment, bridging cultural differences and fostering a sense of unity. Remember that a smile transcends language barriers and can communicate warmth, empathy, and understanding. In a world filled with challenges and complexities, a smile remains a simple yet powerful tool that can make a difference. Let us harness this power and create a brighter and more compassionate future—one smile at a time.

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Author Profile

Dr. Mythili Kolluru is an experienced Assistant Professor in the Graduate Studies Department at the College of Banking and Financial Studies in Oman. She specializes in Strategic Management, Organizational Studies, and International Business, with a doctorate in Strategic Management. Dr. Kolluru is a certified Strategic Planning Professional and Chief Strategy Officer of FunkeyB, a London-based Management Consultancy firm. Dr. Kolluru’s research has been published in several top ranked journals, she is an author, and holds several copyrights.  Contact her at professormythili@gmail.com.

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