The Smile Experiment

These days, conversations with friends and colleagues have a tone of concern, even anxiety.  The presidential election is over. No matter which candidate you favored, it was eye opening to uncover the deep divisions in this country. Confronted with this, it’s tempting to wring one’s hands, get angry or disengage. But I recently learned something encouraging and highly actionable: Happiness spreads.

Shawn Achor, keynote speaker at a national mechanical contractors conference, has devoted his life to understanding happiness.  He’s uncovered simple behaviors that, when practiced regularly, produce remarkable results. His keynote described several of these behaviors; they’re described in more detail in his 2010 book, The Happiness Advantage.

During his presentation, we did a simple but powerful exercise, the smile experiment.

Here’s the scenario: 700 mechanical contractors and their significant others make up the audience. Business owners, engineers, service technicians…no nonsense people. Shawn, the speaker, asks us to pair up with someone that we did not come to the conference with.

I sit with a woman I’d met at lunch the previous day. Shawn reminds us that we’ve excelled throughout our lives by exercising self-discipline. As we do the exercise, we need to use that self-discipline by showing absolutely no emotion whatsoever, no matter what our partner says or does.

At this point, I’m getting kind of anxious. What is he going to have us do? Then, he asks the other person to simply look their partner in the eyes and smile at them warmly and genuinely.  I tell you, it was impossible to keep a straight face. Within seconds, I’m smiling back and giggling at my partner. All around the room, I hear other people laughing and talking animatedly. Happiness spreads.

How does this work? I’m going to restrain myself from diving into the neuroscience and describing the mirror neuron system in detail. But Achor said something that’s at the crux of how happiness spreads: ““Our brains are designed to be wirelessly connected through a mirror neuron network. We don’t process the world, we co-process.”

Just as happiness spreads, so does misery. Have you ever stood in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles surrounded by fidgeting people, rolling their eyes and checking the time every 10 seconds? You may have walked into there feeling just fine. Before you know it, you’re just as miserable as everyone else in line. And it’s not just that you’re waiting. You’ve actually “caught” misery like a cold.

How do we turn the idea that happiness spreads into behaviors that change organizations and teams for the better? One cool system is the Ritz Carleton 10-5 Rule. “Simply explained, the 10 and 5 Rule suggests that anytime a guest is within ten feet of a staff member, the staff member should make eye contact and warmly smile to acknowledge the oncoming guests. When a staff member is approximately five feet from a guest, a sincere greeting or friendly gesture of acknowledgement should accompany the eye contact and smile.”  (Coyle Hospitality)

Variations of the 10-5 Rule have been adopted throughout the hospitality industry. It's also been used in settings that tend to be breeding grounds for misery, like hospitals. In his presentation, Achor described the elegance of this approach:

You don’t need to change an individual, you can change the people around an individual… If we’re all connected wirelessly, you can create a single positive choice that spreads throughout their network…we’re trained to reciprocate.”

Although I may not be able to change the outcome of the election, or singlehandedly unite the people in this country, I do plan to do more smiling and acknowledging of the people around me. Happiness spreads. Try it.

(Achor also has a TED Talk worth viewing)