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Can a Smile End an Epidemic?

With all of the conversation around the epidemic of loneliness and its devastating health outcomes, it feels easy to bury your head in the sand and wait for the tsunami to pass. I felt a bit like that when I launched an organization called SOAR Together to help overcome social isolation and shortly thereafter learned I was tackling a national epidemic.

It’s depressing talking about loneliness and it can feel a bit like a rabbit hole. Early one recent morning while I was taking my morning run through the back roads of Redding, Connecticut, my mind wandered to SOAR’s tagline: "One Smile at a Time" and a lightbulb went off.

Turn the tables, I thought to myself. Start turning the dialog around to the physiology of a smile and how daily doses of smiles become the catalyst to end this epidemic.

We won’t overcome loneliness and social isolation completely. The subjective nature of loneliness leaves some feeling lonely in a crowded room, but we can bring down the numbers with a systemic approach. We can shift our dialog from, “Loneliness equals the equivalent of 15 cigarettes or six drinks per day” to “Smiling not only changes the brain by increasing the production of chemicals like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, but is known to be contagious.”

Smiling starts a chain reaction. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are known to decrease anxiety and increase happiness. When our brains feel happy, signals are sent to the facial muscles to trigger a smile. A positive feedback loop begins at this point, with a smile triggering increased production of endorphins.

Research shows smiling is contagious. Seeing others smile triggers mirror neurons which make us smile.

Smiling is good for your health. Smiling is associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate, an interesting point to note as increased blood pressure and heart disease are directly correlated with feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

Let’s make this 180-degree shift and head in the direction of healing through the fabulously free sharing of smiles. It may sound easy and cheesy, but it’s possible, even if it forces some of us out of our comfort zones.

My favorite analogy applies here – it’s the spark that lights the match that gets the fire going.

We need people willing to be those sparks, to take it upon themselves to own the ending of this epidemic. The complicated beauty of ending this epidemic is that the steps are not difficult. They are a series of measured steps to help us return to a time when offering a gentle smile to a stranger was easier than keeping your head down and eyes on a screen.

Change isn’t easy, but if there is one thing I have learned in the past six months since starting SOAR, it’s that no one wants others to stay in this place of loneliness. We start small. Challenge yourself to smile at a stranger in the grocery store. We never know what the people around us are facing and you could be the spark they need. Why not look at others and smile as you walk from place to place throughout your day? Make this a habit, and you will quickly become part of the change we so very much need.

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