After two of the biggest holidays of the year, it seemed kind of silly to write a column about smiling. But after doing what I do for 25 years, I am well aware that not everybody is jolly over the holidays. But sometimes all it takes is a smile to make things just a bit merrier. In fact, high-tech medical imaging has demonstrated that the sight of a smile physically stimulates electrical activity in the brain of an outgoing person. Similarly, laughter has proven to be an effective response to stress by releasing tension both physically and emotionally.
Forcing yourself to smile can’t generate happiness all by itself. There’s a cognitive (thinking) component as well. People handle this in different ways. Some think about how bad things could be, and how fortunate they are in relation to others. I call this ‘perspective building,’ and it’s fine — as far as it goes. But the absence of tragedy does not, by itself, a happy life make. People should consider what’s going well in their lives, and how they can make it better. Non-depressed people tend to focus on the variety of choices they have. It seems to make sense that people who feel more of a sense of control over their lives also smile more.
It’s the eternal chicken/egg question: Which came first, smiling or mental health? Do mentally healthy people smile more because they’re happier, or does smiling lead to improved mental health? My experience has shown that it’s a combination of the two. The more you think about what you have to be happy about, the more you’ll smile. The more you smile, the more you’ll attract good relationships that add to your own happiness.
Science has uncovered some interesting cultural differences on the subject of smiling. According to one researcher, the French think that most Americans are dopey because they smile all the time. In France, smiling is generally not practiced among strangers, but is reserved for people with whom one has some relationship. I would add that these differences are not just cultural, but individual as well. It could be that some people just smile more than others.
Research also suggests that women smile more than men because women often see themselves as nurturing the harmony and happiness in personal relationships. Interestingly, when women enter male-dominated careers, the gender differences in smiling tend to disappear. Could it be that smiling has more to do with particular situations than just gender?
Sometimes people look at snapshots of themselves and comment, ‘Look at how I’m frowning! Am I always like that?’ It’s hard to see yourself objectively. If your relationships seem to be less than satisfying, you might want to consider the role of smiling (or not smiling) in your interactions with others. What’s there to lose?
A tendency not to smile can also be the result of anxiety. When people are anxious, they tend to smile less. Have you ever flown on an airplane and examined the expression on most people’s faces? Some people have told me that when they force a smile under difficult circumstances, they actually start to feel better. Individuals who feel nervous about public speaking will smile in order to appear confident. The result is a more comfortable feeling as they make their presentations. People with phobias are often advised to smile and laugh during the feared situation. Apparently, smiling can unleash the power to self-fulfill a happy prophecy.
Like happiness and calmness, smiling can’t be forced or faked. But a little extra effort can perk up your emotional state and improve your relationships. Give it a try! Make a difference in your life and the lives of everyone around you, one smile at a time.