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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.