A Bigger Lai-see for Your Smile


Why those who smile deserve more rewards in life.

The Chinese New Year is upon us. Here in Hong Kong, this means it’s time to dole out the lai-sees – red envelopes filled with “lucky money”. For those of you unfamiliar with the tradition, lai-sees are most commonly given by married folks to unmarried folks, by bosses to employees and parents to children, sort of like a blessing from those who supposedly have more to those who supposedly have less. The amount of money that goes into each envelope depends on how generous the giver feels.

In Hong Kong, my husband and I live in a high-rise condominium building with security guards, cleaners and concierges. In our second year living in the building, we discovered that it is customary for residents to give lai cees to the condominium staff. For this purpose, I created two piles of lai cees. One pile with HK$30 envelopes for staff who appear sullen and standoffish, and another with HK$60 envelopes for staff who smile at me frequently, and whom I deem to be friendly.

This made me question my sense of fairness. Is it right of me to reward those with cheerful dispositions while withholding from the more saturnine? What is it about a smiling face that makes me willing to part with an extra HK$30?

I know I am not the only one who makes arbitrary decisions based my impressions of a person’s countenance.

I have a friend who did not get a job promotion he was gunning for. When he asked his manager why he didn’t get the role, he was told it was because he did not smile enough, and some members in his team found him intimidating and unapproachable.

A few years ago, my parents were planning their thirtieth wedding anniversary party. My mother had a friend whom she wanted to invite, but my father had remarked that he’d rather this friend of hers did not attend the party. He said this woman had a “long face”, never smiled and that he did not like being around her. She was invited anyway, because my mom has a killer smile, and when she flashes her pearly whites, my dad will bend to her wishes.

There is no doubt about it, a smile is powerful. Research has proven three things about smiling:

1) Smiling makes us feel good.

When we smile, we activate neural messages that make us feel happy. Smiling releases neuropeptides that fight stress, as well as anti-depressant hormones dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. In an article in Forbes, Eric Savitz reports that smiling stimulates our brains’ reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate is unable to. A study conducted in the UK found that one smile is able to provide the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 chocolate bars. Imagine that? You get to enjoy the effect of 2,000 chocolate bars without the calories!

2) Smiling makes us more attractive and approachable to others.

According to a report in the journal Neuropsychologia, seeing a smiling face activates our orbitofrontal cortex – the part of our brain that process sensory rewards. This suggests that when we see a person smiling, we actually feel rewarded. In an article in Psychology Today, Sarah Stevenson writes, “When you smile, people treat you differently. You’re viewed as attractive, reliable, relaxed and sincere”. Research by Penn State University found that not only does smiling make us appear more likeable and well-mannered, it also leads to others perceiving us as being more competent.

3) Smiling is contagious. When we smile we feel good, our smiles make others smile and they feel good too.

Smiling not only lifts the mood of the smiler, it also lifts the moods of those who see them smiling. In most instances, when someone smiles at us, we smile back. In fact, it is a neurological challenge to not smile back when someone smiles at you. Swedish researchers conducted a study where they showed subjects a picture of someone smiling. They found that the subjects almost immediately imitated the physical action of smiling, and it took a conscious effort for them to not smile.

“Looking at the bigger picture, each time you smile at a person, their brain coaxes them to return the favor. You are creating a symbiotic relationship that allows both of you to release feel good chemicals in your brain, activate reward centers, make you both more attractive and increase the chances of you both living longer, healthier lives,” wrote Stevenson.

So it seems I am getting physiological benefits from the smiling staff in my condominium. That being the case, I think am justified in giving the extra HK$30 to the smilers after all. I guess it boils down to this – a genuine smile is psychosocial currency, and those who deliver ought to get their money’s worth.

Recently, I joined a meditation group. We strolled through a park one morning with a venerable old Buddhist monk. Before we began our walk, the monk suggested we smile at everyone we passed. We all thought this was silly, and that people would think we were nuts. The monk then explained the concept of metta, which is in essence an attitude of good will, friendship and loving-kindness. He told us that when we smile, we send metta – positive, life-affirming energy to the people around us. “Don’t wait for someone else to smile at your first. Let it begin with you,” he said. By the time I completed the stroll, I had smiled at about a dozen strangers, most of them smiled back. By the end of the walk, I felt a heck of a lot cheerier and more optimistic about life than I did before.

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy,” said Thich Nhat Hanh. So go on, say “cheese”!

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