Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Retirement Health - Smile for Longevity

I pride myself on being a “glass half full” kind of person. My husband has pushed this concept even further with his “overflowing glass” perspective. Numerous studies have shown that having a positive attitude boosts one’s immune system. The results: less illness and faster recoveries.

The latest Oprah magazine has an article that provides yet another tool for a retiree’s quest for longevity—smiling. That’s right, the more you smile, the longer you’ll live. What’s more, the broader your smile, the longer your lifeline.

Unlike my other favored sources of posting ideas (the New York Times and Time magazine, to name just two,) Oprah the magazine does not cite the source of the study being reported. But we all know that Oprah the person would not lie to us, so I’m sure this smile information is rock solid.

We are told that the method used was to look at photos of 230 baseball players in an old issue of Baseball Register. The players with “bigmouthed beams” outlived the glum ones by 7 years; they outlived the players with “partial smiles” by 4.9.

We’re not given any guidance as to what qualifies as partial vs. bigmouthed. I’m guessing it has to do with either the number of pearly whites that are exposed, or perhaps the percentage of facial width that the smile takes up.

I’m actually less curious about that information than what possessed the person conducting the study to go to the Baseball Register in the first place. Are baseball players friendlier than football stars? They probably have more teeth than hockey players. But why use athletes in the first place?

Perhaps they started with photos of Miss America contestants and then realized that they all had “bigmouthed beams,” hence providing no range of data to measure. (And shame on those of you who were thinking “big headlights.”)

This brings me to another point brought up in the Oprah article. They identified two types of smiles—genuine and fake. “Big whup!” I hear you saying; “we all knew that.” But I’ll bet you didn’t know that you can weed out the phonies by looking at their eyes. A genuine smile causes—and I’m quoting here—“a facial muscle called the orbicularis oculi” to contract, “crinkling the skin around the eyes.”

Supposedly, you can’t fake an o.c. contraction. (Keep it clean now.) So when you see lines at the corners of the eyes, you know it’s a genuine happy face. Frankly, I’m not so sure about this. I’ve seen a lot of people, women in particular, who’ve spent far too much time in the sun and are left with permanent crinkles around their eyes. But since this post is about extending your own life, it really doesn’t matter whether other people are sincere.

This of course leads to the question: What can we do to help us smile more often and more broadly? And OK, I suppose more genuinely, otherwise we might not get the health benefit. One simple way is to read RetirementSparks on a regular basis. (Sorry. That’s shameless self promotion and quite rude.)

We do know that positive attitudes and good moods are contagious. (Oprah does cite a source for this: the British Medical Journal.) Hang around with happy people and you’re more likely to be happy, so pick your friends accordingly. This simple screening of potential friends can help: “Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of person?” Go with the half full (or overflowing) every time.

Practice smiling in front of the mirror. The Oprah article says that smiles are contagious. So even if you start with a fake smile, when you see it in the mirror, pretend it’s someone else and just smile back. So what may have started as fake will become genuine. (This is my own idea, not Oprah’s, so if it works, give me the credit.)

There are other things in our lives that usually bring a smile: little children and animals come to mind. If you don’t have any of these in your own household, visit a local playground or dog park. You can smile vicariously at the antics of the offspring and pets of others. Just be careful you don’t look too creepy doing it. Not everyone reads Oprah, so you could have a hard time explaining your motives.

Of course, there’s always one of my favorite ways to bring a smile to my face. Open up a nice bottle of wine, sit back, relax, and just smile, smile, smile.

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