This is going to sound very weird. I’m smiling while lying in bed. I’m smiling while typing these words. I’m smiling when no one is around and there’s nothing particularly amusing going on. I’m doing this after reading the book The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh a Buddhist Monk from Vietnam who played an important role in the 1960s and beyond. When he talks about meditation, he talks about posture, breath, focus, etc. but one thing he also emphasizes is putting on a half-smile as a part of your practice. “Now, begin to follow your breath and to relax all your muscles. Concentrate on keeping your spinal column straight and on following your breath. As for everything else, let it go. Let go of everything. If you want to relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face, let the half-smile come to your face. As the half-smile appears, all the facial muscles begin to relax. The longer the smile is maintained, the better. It is the same smile you see on the face of the Buddha (1).”
This made me curious because it’s brought up a few times in the book- how smiling when meditating, leads to smiling while being mindful, leads to smiling in every moment. I think of my resting face. I’ve not ever liked it. I look mad. I once had a student say that they had been told I looked like the woman who hosted the 2000-2017 TV game show called The Weakest Link. She was worried I was going to be mean and say something like, “You’re the weakest link!” Ugg! That has stuck with me.
However, smiling all day does NOT come naturally for me. When our 6th-grade level moved from a middle school building to a K-6th elementary building, everyone smiled all the time, so I tried, too. I remember joking with my partner teacher that after the first few days my cheeks actually hurt.
I decided to look into this whole smiling thing because according to Thich Naht Hanh, it really has a major impact on our inner perceptions and also on those with whom we interact. So, I decided both to research and start this smiling thing throughout the day as much as I could remember to do it (and not make others think I was losing touch with reality).
THE SCIENCE OF A SMILE
In the article World Smile Day-How Smiling Affects Your Brain, the author explains, “Smiling activates tiny molecules in your brain that are designed to fend off stress. These molecules, called neuropeptides, facilitate communication between neurons in your brain. Also, when you smile, your brain releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are associated with lowering your anxiety and increasing feelings of happiness. In fact, serotonin is often the chemical that anti-depressant medications attempt to regulate. This natural, feel-good chemical cocktail that your brain serves up helps you feel happier and more relaxed, and it can even lower your heart rate and blood pressure (2).”
In the article What’s the Science Behind the Smile? the author, Ding Li states, “This is the start of the positive feedback loop of happiness. When our smiling muscles contract, they fire a signal back to the brain, stimulating our reward system, and further increasing our level of happy hormones, or endorphins. In short, when our brain feels happy, we smile; when we smile, our brain feels happier (8) .”
In addition to feeling happier, a 2011 study by researchers at the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland found that when we smile, we actually are better looking to others! “A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia reported that seeing an attractive, smiling face activates your orbitofrontal cortex, the region in your brain that processes sensory rewards. This suggests that when you view a person smiling, you actually feel rewarded (5).”
Another study of the effects of smiling on the brain conducted in Sweden showed that it was very difficult for subjects not to smile when shown photos of people smiling. They were told to frown at every photo with a smiling face. Participants’ first natural reaction was to smile. They had to consciously choose to frown in order to follow the directions (4).
In the workplace, studies have shown that smiling increases the feel-good aura which in turn increases productivity as well as creativity (6). Researcher and economics professor, Andrew Oswald’s found, “Happier workers, our research found, were 12% more productive. Unhappier workers were 10% less productive (3).”
Smiling can even help keep our bodies healthier. Some research says it can add on years to our lives because our cells change their functioning due to our thoughts and emotions. “When we smile, we reduce the rigidness of our cells, and this physical relaxation can help combat the risk of stress-induced cell mutations that can lead to the development or persistence of various cancers (7).” It is thought that less cellular stress allows for better balance in the body which then leads to health and overall wellness.
MY SMILING CHALLENGE
There are times a grin comes to my face naturally. Do you see the crow’s feet at the sides of my eyes? This is a true smile of happiness according to scientists, called the Duchenne Smile (6). When I’m around this kid, my face lights up to her bright smile. I have noticed a sense of energy and happiness comes nearly every time no matter where I am physically and emotionally before she comes over.
While writing this post this morning, I received a phone call from my cousin. My uncle Bill and surrogate dad passed away today. He was someone who never spared a smile for me. I wish right now that I had somehow captured that smile in a photo from the last time he gave it to me when we visited him and my aunt in Arizona. His smiles were always quickly followed by a hand holding or hug. In the last year when he couldn’t speak his thoughts due to Aphasia and dementia, his smile said so much, “I’m so glad to see you! I love you! You make me happy!” That smile is etched in my memory as are the countless before, but I don’t want them to fade.
And so, I’m going to follow Thich Nhat Hanh suggests in his book by smiling more. I’ll let you know how my experiment goes on World Smile Day, October 2, 2020. If nothing else, it will strengthen my zygomatic major muscle, which resides in the cheek and tugs the lips upward and my orbicularis oculi muscles, which encircles the eye socket and squeezes the outside corners into the shape of a crow’s foot (6). Or I’ll make everyone wonder what I’m up to! Both are worth the effort😁
- The Miracle of Mindfulness
- World Smile Day – How Smiling Affects Your Brain
- Happy Workers Are More Productive
- Smiles and What They Mean
- There’s Magic in Your Smile
- The Psychological Study of Smiling
- Huffington’s Post: 11 Surprising Effects of Smiling
- What’s the Science Behind a Smile?
In my article The Danger of Distraction: Turning Toward Pain to Eliminate Suffering speaks to my feelings of trying to ignore difficult emotions and physical sensations. I’ve seen way too much of that growing up and how it has and is damaging those I love.
Do you smile often? Have you ever faked a smile? I challenge you to do the Half-smile Exercises for the next three months. Let’s see if we can bring a bit of goodness to the world.
Thank you for visiting my blog today. I am committing to posting once a week on Fridays. However, as you know, my new normal means that sometimes I have to listen to my body and am not able to follow through as planned. Thank you for your understanding.
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