“Now, when you are in New York, walk purposefully. Keep your head down and don’t smile at anyone.”

It was kindly meant advice. A friend was coaching me about how to walk through a part of the big city that, though close to a major university, does have a reputation for being dangerous. Maybe he was even right. But the idea made me sad.

What has happened that smiling, the most basic affirmation of happiness, has become dangerous? And, what if, I ponder, the lack of smiles is not the reaction to feeling stressed but creates it? What if shutting off our smiles is making us unhappy, less healthy and less attractive and connected?

Research provides some answers. Smiling is good for us individually and collectively. It has positive effects even if we fake it. Let’s look at good reasons to smile.

  1. Smiling makes us happy. You don’t have to wait for something positive to happen to smile. You can make happiness by smiling. Smile. Smile broadly. Squinch up your eyes. That’s right. That’s called a Duchenne smile. During the mid-19th century, French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne discovered that a smile that raises your cheekbones and squinches your eyes is associated with increased positive feelings that others are invited to share. Smiles that only involve turning up your lips are felt by you and seen by others as merely polite and automatic. They may keep the social wheels turning but they don’t enhance your life.

    LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley studied the yearbook pictures of 114 (women) grads of Mills College that were taken from 1958 – 1960. Fifty had Duchenne smiles and 61 had smiles that merely involved the upturned lips of a polite smile. Thirty years later, those with the Duchenne smiles were found to have been more likely to get married by age 27, to stay married and to report satisfying marriages. They also scored higher on measures of physical and emotional well-being. How about that?

  2. Smiling connects us to others. Smiling is a statement of friendliness, openness and willingness to engage. It’s a nonverbal hello. Student raters of those pictures of the Mills grads referred to above reported more interest in approaching the women who showed those Duchenne expressions.
  3. Smiling relieves stress. The simple act of making a big smile will activate endorphins and reduce levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol. Researchers Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman at the University of Kansas ran an experiment with undergraduates they recruited for the study. The students who smiled while recovering from a mildly stressful task had lower heart rates than those who had neutral expressions. Those with Duchenne smiles had lower heart rates yet. (Heart rate is an indicator of someone’s stress level.) The experiment shows that smiling when stressed can help reduce the intensity of the fight or flight response, even if we aren’t really feeling particularly happy.

    Try it. The next time you are feeling stressed because you are being kept waiting or you are late for an appointment or you are worried about a school exam or a job interview, or anything stressful — smile. Smile big. Smile with your eyes as well as your mouth. Chances are you will feel your anxiety and stress go down a notch.

  4. Smiling will help you live longer. Really. Psychologists Ernest Able and Michael Kruger at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan sorted pictures of major league baseball players (printed in the 1952 Baseball Register) according to the broadness of their smiles. They then looked at the players’ life spans. Imagine their surprise to find that the players with the biggest smiles lived an average of 79.9 years — a full seven more years than players who wore neutral or polite but less than genuine smiles.

    Other studies show that smiling actually promotes relaxation through the release of certain neurotransmitters. This boosts your immune system. If you want to “immunize” yourself from this year’s flu, get your flu shot, then smile more.

  5. Smiling makes you more attractive. A confident smile can be more attractive than good looks. A study by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry found that 96 percent of American adults believe an attractive smile makes a person more appealing to members of the opposite sex. Researchers in Bern, Switzerland found that less attractive but happy faces were judged as equally or even more attractive than attractive but less smiling faces for both male and female faces.

    Dr. Monica Moore studies nonverbal courtship behavior at Webster University in Missouri. She found that smiling people who made eye contact in bars and malls were approached more often than non-smilers, even when less physically attractive.

  6. Smiling makes you memorable. Smiling calls attention to you in a positive way. Teachers and professors remember the students who smiled at them during class and tend to provide them with more glowing recommendations when asked. Bosses remember subordinates who greet them with a friendly smile.
  7. Smiling leads to success. Studies show that smilers do better at work and in school than non-smilers. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her team at the University of California-Riverside reviewed 225 studies involving 275,000 people. They found that consistently happy people are generally more successful in life than unhappy people. Further, happiness leads to success, not the other way around.

I don’t know how to respond to my cautious New Yorker friend. He may be correct that less-than-upstanding strangers might view a friendly smile as an indication of vulnerability. He may be right that it’s best to purposefully stride, head down and smile-free, to wherever I’m going. I’ll be careful for now and will save my smiles for when I’m reasonably sure I’m safe. But I do think that a song Louis Armstrong used to sing had it right: “When you’re smilin’, keep on smilin’; The whole world smiles with you.” Maybe, just maybe, if everyone on the street started smiling at each other, it would make the world a happier, healthier, and, yes, safer place.