Proof Positive: Stop Frowning, Start Smiling, and Watch Your World Change

By Amy Lemley

Last week, I read about yet another study showing Botox helped eliminate depression. Paralyze the frown muscles, it found, and you somehow thwart feelings of malaise, hopelessness, and even sadness. As if by magic, study subjects developed a positive outlook, and both subjective and objective symptoms of depression lifted.

Researchers aren’t sure why. It’s not vanity—in this most recent study, the subjects chosen weren’t seeking cosmetic improvement (one even said he preferred his unaltered look despite feeling less depressed). It’s possible mood and its expression may be a biochemical two-way street—with each capable of prompting and reinforcing the other. Or perhaps people who frown less have more favorable interactions with others, which makes life seem less bleak.

Can something as small as changing your facial expression banish negativity and allow you to embrace the positive?

It works that way with smiling. Smiling releases endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, which create a feeling of well-being. Not only that, but smiling—the “real” kind, which engages both mouth and eyes—causes others to perceive you as “altruistic” and “cooperative,” according to a 2010 article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Years ago, I accepted an onsite freelance assignment with no interest in the possibility of full-time work. Within a week, though, I let my client know I would welcome it. Why? Quite simply, being at that workplace cheered me up. The people I met in the hallways were gracious and friendly, and I found myself smiling all day long. It was only a few months later that I realized that I tended to say hello and smile first. That didn’t matter. In being positive, I had created a workplace I wanted to be part of.

Smiles create positivity even when we aren’t face to face. Humans can “hear” smiles over the phone and in audio recordings. What’s more, they can even distinguish different types of smiles—forced, genuine, sarcastic, embarrassed, or otherwise. Do you smile on the phone? If so, you probably hear people smiling back at you.

In my current role with Lift Consulting, I interact largely via e-mail. I like to think my good cheer finds its way through the ether to my e-mail recipients—though I try to avoid overdoing it with exclamation points or inserting emoticons to do my smiling for me. Instead, I use language intended to convey a bright mood and a sense of progress.

Lest you picture me as one big blinding grin, know this: My default is not positivity, but negativity. Some days, my inner voice lets loose a barrage of criticism wherever I go. “That’s a stupid business name.” “Look at that woman walking on the side of the road rather than driving.” “That jogger flaps his arms when he and runs.” I’ve had this poisonous habit for years, and I have the frown lines to prove it.

In 2010, I took a stand: Actively listen for these negative reactions, then quickly substitute a positive response. First, I smile. Then I express support and caring. “Good for them for opening their own business!” “Good for her for getting along without a car!” “Good for him for exercising!”

In their book Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation, Ryan and Robert Quinn delineate the impact of caring about others rather than blaming them (see Ryan’s “Out with the Old (Blame), In with the New (Positivity)”). Their research shows that when people shift their focus toward caring about others, the groups they interact with are more “energized, resilient, focused on integrity, trusting, and capable of learning, innovating, and experimenting.”

Which is exactly how I myself feel when I replace my critical play-by-play with a narrative that celebrates the human spirit for doing the best it can. And to think that it all starts with a smile.

Bio: As project manager at Lift Consulting, guest blogger Amy Lemley oversees the Reflected Best Self positive feedback collection process. She is co-author of eight books, including Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed (Wiley, 2010).