The Power of a Smile

With or without a mask, consciously arranging my face from the inside out makes all the difference.

Derek Gordon


Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of loving, working with, and managing many extraordinary people—people I respect and cherish and learn from every day.

Here’s the thing… something occasionally comes between me and the people with whom I most frequently interact: my face.

And that can be a problem. You know the old saying, “he wears his heart on his sleeve”? Well, I wear my thoughts on my face.

For instance, when I’m happy or surprised or delighted, my eyebrows lift, my eyes widen, and my mouth drops open into a dopey smile. Conversely, when I’m in an introspective state of mind — when I think hard on a problem, or an opportunity, or a conversation that flummoxed me—my face darkens, my jaw clenches, and my brow furrows.

Other people who are not me—let’s call them normal people—often have poker faces. Or they’re more inscrutable. They’re better at hiding thoughts, reactions, and emotions.

Not me. So I learned to warn people about my face.

I wish it were more handsome, but that’s not it. Too often, as I meet one-on-one with folks or join a group in a meeting, my mind will start to dig in on a comment or a problem and my face does a thing. Most people think: “Hmm. His face is doing a thing. And not a happy, smiley thing. It’s doing that thing. I think we have a problem.”

Nine times out of ten, however, that’s just not true. There’s no problem. I’m just cogitating. What’s going on internally manifests externally, all over my face. So I would tell folks when they see my face arranged in a way that causes concern to say: “Hey, you’re doing that thing with your face… what’s on your mind?”

I found that when people I know have that permission, when they feel free to ask that question, I’m handed a gift. I’m able to get out of my head and back into the present moment. I’m able to share whatever it is I’m mulling if it’s appropriate. I’m able to invite a reaction to those thoughts. And, almost always, the act of talking it out helps me and those I’m chatting with get to the right resolutions.

But, over time, that felt like shifting a burden onto others. So I began thinking about how I might avoid the whole “face doing a thing” thing altogether. And I developed some tricks that really work for me.

First, I do the things everyone says you should do, like meditate daily (thanks Headspace), get exercise regularly, and eat and sleep well. I don’t do these perfectly or as consistently as I’d like, but overall I’m pretty good.

Meditation, in particular has really helped me to stay present—to calm my mind, to actively listen, and to be in the moment. I’ve found that this is key.

But what also works for me is two physical acts that sound ridiculously simple:

  1. Lift your eyebrows, as if in surprise; and
  2. Smile. In almost every situation.

Though simple, I’ve found that even a small physical act can radically change my mental activity for the better. And while smiling is relatively easy thing to do, I find I have to work at it.

If I’m walking in the park with the dog, I try to remember to lift my eyebrows and smile, especially at passersby (most people don’t think I’m creepy and return the smile, but not everyone…) Pre-Covid, when I walked into work, or a dinner party, or a bar, I’d consciously do the same thing. And when people are speaking to me (these days, usually via Zoom), I first resolve to be fully present and to deeply listen, but then I lift my eyebrows and smile (even if only a little.)

No matter what my full reaction may ultimately be, it starts with a smile, with warmth… with welcome.

As Covid descended upon the world and required us all to don masks and socially distance ourselves from just about everyone, I found the little ticks I’ve learned over the years to ensure my face says “hey, I’m good… we’re good… let’s talk…” were blunted.

So over the last year, I’ve worked hard to make sure that, in addition to everything else, my eyes are smiling as much as my mouth is, whether masked or not.

It’s a weird sensation, willfully trying to convey something like a smile through your eyes. It’s hard, at least at first, which why great actors are so good at what they do. They have perfected the task of using everything at their disposal to convey ideas, reactions, and emotions, including their voices, their bodies, and, yes, their eyes. It’s something they control. It’s a set of tools.

But those tools are forged from genuine emotion; from a place of empathy; from spaces of integrity and authenticity.

What I’ve learned is that while lifting your eyebrows and composing your mouth into a smile is a great start, the way to transmit that smile all the way through your eyes is to feel the smile in your heart… in your mind… and in your soul. Feel it from a place of honesty and empathy.

If you can find that place inside you that feels like the sun radiating outwards, and then really smile, it’ll light up your eyes even as it lifts your brow and changes the shape of your mouth into something happy and welcoming.

If you have a face like mine, and even if you don’t, it’s worth a try.