10 Reasons to Try This Natural Cure-All

positive thinking, health effects of smiling, good attitude,

I was brought up to be so damn polite that I smiled right through humiliation, pain, even crimes committed against my person. Not healthy. I renounced the whole Good Girl burden long ago. Getting past it isn’t speedy process, although I do aspire to be a badly behaved old lady some day. (My kids insist I’m veering off the mark, heading directly toward strange.)

I may be seeking greater authenticity but I still recognize smile power. I’ve smiled, by choice, despite problems too awful to send to your screen. I’m smiling right now as my family moves on from recent difficulties. The heavy sorrow of losing loved ones is rounding into grateful memory, our falling down house is getting fixed, and my husband has gotten a job after two and a half years of unemployment. Smiling got us through. Plus plenty of snuggling and silliness and resolutely looking at the Big Picture.

Nobody likes to be told to cheer up and put on a happy face. But there’s a lot to be said for the curative powers of a big toothy smile.

1. A genuine smile is easy to identify. Kids as young as six can tell when you’re faking it. A real smile is known as a Duchenne smile, named after 19th century French doctor Guillaume Duchenne. He noted that such smiles engage specific muscles around the mouth as well as those around the eyes. Non-Duchenne smiles (fake smiles) don’t indicate true emotion since people have little control over the outer portion of their eye muscles. It’s not easy to come up with a genuine smile when you don’t feel like it. But the humor found in surprise or the laughter of others can jolt us right into real smiles.

2. When we witness a fleeting smile, even one so rapid we don’t consciously recognize it, our zygomatic major muscles (used in smiling) move in response. We’re biologically primed to mimic the facial expressions we see.

smiling and health, smiling and mental health, smiling and outlook,

3. Mirror neurons deep in our brains activate when we watch someone else, just as if we are doing or experiencing what they are. This mirroring process surely helps us learn as well as empathize. It also indicates that the examples around us are phenomenally powerful. We can’t help but mirror the emotions of people who are angry, cynical, or miserable any more than we can pick up on and experience for ourselves the emotions of those who are enthusiastic, compassionate, or happy.  As Marco Iacoboni writes in Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others,  “Mirror neurons are brain cells that seem specialized in understanding our existential condition and our involvement with others. They show that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another.”

4. We’re not only wired to respond and take on the moods of others, it’s nearly impossible to keep a straight face around people who are grinning. Acts of kindness are contagious too.

smiling and positive outlook, good mood, why smile,

5. Another person’s smiling face doesn’t just affect our feelings. Seeing a smiling face, even in a photo, has a powerful cognitive impact. It cues us to higher level, more abstract thinking.

6. According to neurologists, the regular practice of smiling strengthens the brain’s ability to maintain a positive outlook, actually interrupting mood disorders. Smiling also activates brain circuitry that boosts empathy and promotes social interaction.

real smile vs. fake smile, genuine smile, positive outlook, 7. A smile makes a great first impression. Smiling makes us seem more attractive to others. That’s in part because the smile muscles lift our faces but also because people are drawn to positive expressions.

8. People prefer women without make-up who smile over the same women in make-up who don’t smile.

shift into positive mode, smile and change, 9. When we smile, our bodies release endorphins, the natural “all is good” neurotransmitter.

10. A genuine smile is linked to happy marriages and life satisfaction. It’s also linked to a much longer life —seven years in one study. (Even a fake smile gives a boost of five years over non-smilers.)

smile for a long life, smiling and health,

Pro-smiling evidence doesn’t mean any of us should suppress our true feelings. But I’ve discovered a smile and a positive outlook eases those unavoidable miseries life tosses my way. Besides, it’ll confuse people as I advance my plot to become a badly behaved old lady.

The Youngest Have The Oldest Way Of Knowing

children as deep ecologists, seeing people as animals, older ways of wisdom, living the Gaia theory,

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I had a translation problem when I was very small. Like any other reasonable preschooler, I knew full well that people had names just as I had a name. But I saw people’s faces as having their own animal faces too. I wasn’t sure why everyone else couldn’t see this. Many of the animals I saw flickering right under the surface of outward human appearances were creatures I didn’t recognize. Some kind of deer or antelope on one face, an unusual hound on another. This was fascinating and distracting. It also meant I had to translate in my head from what I saw as a person’s animal identity into their given name. I never slipped, never called my kindergarten teacher a hawk or referred to the boy down the street as a dolphin. I was polite enough to realize this would have been rude, although I couldn’t understand why animals were so much lower on the scale of importance.  I grew out of it by the time I was five or six.

I’m probably making my childhood self sound like a complete ninny. (And I’m still a ninny in other ways.) But I still remember “seeing” animal identities in people.

Young children have a very creative sense of reality. That’s exactly the way they’re supposed to be. Adults may teach children that the night’s dreams have nothing to do with the next day, that the wind doesn’t have a voice, that a beloved toy can’t feel their adoration. Still, children know what they experience. They sense potent meaning in everything.

We forget that human-centered reasoning is a cultural thing. A recent study compared children who live in direct contact with nature to urban children who have somewhat limited contact with the natural world. Researchers found striking differences in outlook. Children who are raised close to nature, and who are sensitive to certain beliefs, are more likely to call animal communication talking and to see water as alive. They seem to grasp what ecophilosopher Arne Naess termed deep ecology. The deep ecology worldview recognizes the intrinsic value of all beings and the complex interdependence of all natural systems.

This affirms what our species long understood and only recently forgot. We are inextricably connected to the natural world for sustenance, meaning, learning, and perhaps most intimately, for our sense of self. Looking at the whole swath of human existence, we are barely out of the hunter-gatherer era. Each of us is tuned to nature’s wavelength. Yet we conduct our lives as if we are separate. The youngest children among us may sense how wrong this is.

In one of the last books by ecologist Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness, he speculates that what ails civilization is a kind of arrested development. From birth each of us is cued toward greater wholeness through deep interconnection with one another and the natural world.  We require elders who understand this and guide us. But these days, Shepard writes, we’re not likely to grow to maturity in this way.

“Adults, weaned to the wrong music, cut short from their own potential, are not the best of mentors. The problem may be more difficult to understand than to solve. Beneath the veneer of civilization, in the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and the animal, but the human in us who knows what is right and necessary for becoming fully human: birth in gentle surroundings, a rich nonhuman environment, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the discipline of natural history, play at being animals, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship. There is a secret person undamaged in each of us, aware of the validity of these conditions, sensitive to their right moments in our lives.”

I think we can still raise children this way, pushing back against our rushed and fragmented world. More and more people seek natural birth, attachment parenting, child rearing balanced between freedom and responsibility, and free range learning. Nature-based living isn’t out of the equation, no matter where we live. It is restorative to spend time in wild places, but it takes only a shift in awareness to to immerse ourselves in nature wherever we are. As adults, we model for children how to treat all life with respect. In turn, children model for us many ways to find awe, metaphor, magic, and oneness in what we long ago learned to disregard. That is, if we pay attention.

Some might dispute that paying attention to such wonderment remains relevant in today’s world. Some may want to know what’s to be gained by dreams, imagination, watchfulness, and nature-centered thinking. Acknowledging the primacy of these wonders doesn’t point away from the path of achieving one’s potential. If we need an individual example, look to Lilian “Na’ia Alessa, a cell biologist who advances science by incorporating Western and traditional ways of knowing in her work.

Or wider examples. When psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his well-known hierarchy of needs he placed self-actualizers at the pinnacle. He defined such people as reaching “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” Among those Maslow considered to be self-actualizers:  Spinoza, Goethe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Haydn. These people didn’t “unlearn” older ways of knowing. In fact, the characteristics of self-actualizers sound quite a bit like children who aren’t limited to human-centered reasoning. Self-actualizers are spontaneous, they see things in fresh and often unconventional ways, they are interested in the unknown, they aren’t limited by other’s perceptions, they transcend cultural rigidity, and they feel compassion for all life. Some self-actualizers have what Maslow called “peak experiences.” A defining characteristic of a peak experience is a sense of unity with everything and everyone, a complete oneness. This too sounds like the children we’ve been discussing, those who haven’t yet been taught to stop seeing vibrant meaning around them.

So much is to be gained by a wider way of knowing. Let’s not unlearn all that we knew as children. Let’s see everything for what it can teach us. As poet Joy Harjo tells us, “Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems.”

 


Making Heroism Happen

Notice similar statements when people who have committed heroic acts are interviewed? They tend to say, “I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was just doing what anyone would have done.”  (This from a man who climbed into a burning car to save a woman.)

we can all be heroes

Hero: Wesley Autrey

Or  “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular” (this from a man who leaped in front of an oncoming subway train to pull an unconscious man from the tracks.)

Hero: Jencie Fagan

Or “I think anybody else would have done it.” (This from a teacher who stopped a school shooter by embracing him in a bear hug.)

The same rationale is heard from people who rise to heroic acts despite living with difficult circumstances of their own.

A homeless man who tried to tackle robbers during an attempted hold-up of a Brinks truck and memorized the license plate of their get-away car said, “You just gotta look out for what’s happening with people around you other than yourself.”

A teen with an extensive criminal record stole a bus to drive victims of Hurricane Katrina to safety. He explained, “The police was leaving people behind. I had to pick up people on the bus. The police didn’t want to do nothing. We stepped up and did what we had to  do.”

And a homeless man lost his few possessions after jumping into an icy river to rescue a drowning woman. He said “I just did what needed to be done because someone needed my help.”

what it takes to be a hero

Hero: Adan Abobaker

In their own words heroes continue to tell us that what they have done is not at all extraordinary. If we hold heroes apart from us as superhuman and describe their actions as unfathomably brave, we deny that all of us have the capacity to be heroes if the need arises.

We can develop that capacity. When I lead non-violence workshops we start by working on issues of empathy (identifying with the emotions, ideas, and attitudes of others) as well as empowerment to act on that empathy. Both are necessary to break through what’s been called the “bystander effect.” This was first identified by Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule due to the kindness of others. Dr. Staub explains in  The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence that it takes the willingness of those who are uninvolved (bystanders) to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Without such bystanders, atrocities such as war and genocide are “permitted” to happen.

The bystander effect is active on a smaller scale as well. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person they are more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.

What’s the difference between those who ignore suffering and those who are moved to alleviate suffering? People who have imperiled their lives for months or years to help others can give us some insight. Svetlana Broz, author of Good People in an Evil Time: Portraits of Complicity and Resistance in the Bosnian War, says it requires at least three attributes.

1. The courage to think for oneself, resisting conformity even at the risk of one’s own safety.

2. A moral core that inspires action.

3. The capacity to empathize with those who are dissimilar.

Hero: Zofia Baniecka, rescued 50 Jews during Holocaust

Eva Fogelman, author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, writes that heroic acts tend to come from a deep sense of common humanity. The roots of this behavior may stem from early upbringing. Fogelman notes that many Holocaust rescuers themselves suffered and were sensitized to the suffering of others. They also tended to have been raised in loving families where self-worth was fostered and reason rather than punishment was used as discipline.

Social scientists still know quite a bit more about aberrant behavior than why people choose to do good. That’s changing according to Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.  Zimbardo conducted the now infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (check it out on this slide show) which demonstrated that psychologically normal people will instigate and take part in atrocities. Now Zimbardo is devoting himself to bringing forth the brighter side. He’s started an organization called  Heroic Imagination Project which aims to teach the rudiments of heroism.

Currently a pilot project, it consists of four main educational components taught over four weeks.

  1. Students initially learn about us versus them attitudes, unthinking obedience to authority, and other human tendencies which unwittingly allow cruelties to happen.
  2. Next they work on building empathic responses through listening, paying attention, and “walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes.”
  3. Then they study heroic stories, seeking role models and discovering that compassionate action does inspire.
  4. And finally they practice heroic behavior on a daily basis by translating their good intentions into action, no matter how small.

We don’t have to wait for a course. The steps taught by the Heroic Imagination Project are the building blocks of human decency, things we should teach our children every day and should continue to develop in ourselves.

We’re captivated by real heroes in the news and imaginary heroes in the movies because they call out the best in us. Such stories ask us to live up to our values, not only when we’re in extreme situations.

It’s also time to recognize unsung heroes around us everywhere. They don’t get publicity because their deeds don’t seem extraordinary. Unselfish acts performed a million times a minute weave us together as a caring species. We tend to the helpless, comfort the sorrowful, share knowledge, and create happiness. Such kindness is contagious, each act of compassion and cooperation spreading out in enlarging waves of goodwill. Such efforts may seem small, but they are the basis for making heroism happen.

Naked With My Editor

I’m not well-behaved or well-dressed enough for most careers. That may be what led me to cobble together enough freelance gigs to call myself a writer. It doesn’t pay quickly or pay well. In fact, I earn less than in my former occupation, social work, and that’s saying something.  But freelancing suits me.

Well, except for that episode of nudity with my editor.

Perhaps I should explain.

Years ago I secured a job writing a column for a newspaper. I worked after the kids were in bed and I e-mailed the first piece just before the midnight deadline in a sleepy haze.

The next morning was typical. I unloaded the dishwasher, explained long division, feigned patience while listening to a child’s original knock knock jokes, discussed the ethics of phone screening with my eight-year-old (who considered it a politeness violation to let it ring), and took photographs of my daughter dissecting a sheep eyeball for a biology project.

It was mid-morning before I had time to shower.  Because I’m efficient (lazy) I wear whatever comes out of the dryer.  It spares me the effort of putting away my own laundry.  I don’t mind monotonous outfits in the service of convenience.

When I got out of the shower I grabbed a towel for my usual mad dash to the dryer and on the way was handed the phone by my eight-year-old.  It was the newspaper editor. He wanted me to add a few sentences to my column.  He expected me to do this off the top of my head, over the phone, immediately.

While he was telling me this I realized my 11-year-old son had opened the front door, inviting in his pubescent pals.  They were chatting eagerly as they headed toward me on their way to the kitchen.  There was no way I could get to our dryer, handily located on the first floor, unless I ran directly into these youths and knocked them over like baggy-pants’d bowling pins.  I didn’t want to expose these poor youngsters to my not-supermodel flesh at their impressionable ages so I took the kindest course of action possible. I retreated down the basement steps, towel clutched in one hand and phone in the other.

Although I had no chance of sounding professional on the phone, I went on talking to my editor, giving him the lines he needed. He asked if he could edit them to fit.  “Sure,” I told him. He’s a writer too, I thought, it’ll be fine. He chatted away as if we were old friends—-he surely sitting in a comfortable chair at his desk, me a semi-naked freelancer huddled in the basement.

I stayed trapped in that basement long enough to meditate on the beauty of cobwebs and the interconnection of all life.  Long enough to get really cold in my small wet towel.

When my column was published, I saw that my editor had rearranged my few sentences into a nonsensical word soup.  It took a lot of self control to keep myself from going into a  sheep eyeball tossing snit. But just then my check arrived in the mail. It was larger than I’d expected. I felt like dancing right out the door to celebrate, but I couldn’t. That’s because I’m a freelance writer and of course, I wasn’t dressed yet.