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Michael Phelps and the Power of a Smile

Vincent Harris

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Yes it's true; Michael Phelps dominated the swimming events in the 2008 Olympics. He broke the record of Mark Spitz and established himself as the greatest swimmer in history- perhaps the greatest athlete in any sport. But do these accomplishments really explain the emotional outpouring, from not only the men women and children of the United States, but men women and children from around the world? I don't think so.

There's something that happens every time Michael Phelps is being interviewed- something that you have no doubt noticed-that creates the aura of irresistible charm that emanates from him. He smiles.

Facial coding expert, and the world's foremost authority on facial expressions, Dr. Paul Ekman, has written extensively about the impact of a smile. But recent research about the human brain has revealed the answer to why we can have such a strong emotional reaction to the emotions experienced by others.

Mirror neurons can be thought of as chemical and electrical processors in the brain that cause us to mimic what we see someone else doing. Monkeys that were simply watching other monkeys manipulate items with their hands, had the same areas of the brain lighting up and showing activity, as the monkeys that were actually doing the grabbing. As it turns out, the human brain does the same thing, just in a more sophisticated manner.

See, when we are watching Michael Phelps smile, our brain ( whether we realize it or not) is causing a cascade of tiny neurological “firings" that literally cause the same nerve pathways to activate, as the ones called into play on Michael's face. The result? Even the grumpiest of people will be more likely to generate “good" or happy feelings when in the presence of people who are smiling. Even if we don't want it to “rub off", as long as we can see the smiling person, it will.

It's not just a smile, however, that can change how we feel with ease. Have you ever seen the near constant scowl of Vladimir Putin? This steely, “Slip up and I'll get you" look that he carries with him wherever he goes, causes the mirror neurons to activate just the same. Look at a room full of people with the “Putin face" all day, and I assure you, you'll feel less than optimistic about the future.

In the end, one of the best things you can do to increase your own happiness is to surround yourself with people who reflect the feelings you would like more access to; namely, people who smile a lot. Likewise, when you begin smiling more often, you'll find people naturally gravitating closer to you. They can't help it. Most people want to feel happy, and you will just be making it easier for them to do so.

Vincent Harris is a Body Language Expert, and the President of Harris Research International. As a speaker, trainer and consultant, Vince teaches others to transform their ability to achieve communication mastery. Learn more about his new audio program, Revealing Happiness at or visit his website at


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