You’re running errands and the traffic is nasty, the weather is nastier, and your mood is increasingly foul. Then you hear your mother’s wisdom: Smile, it’s good for you.
That’s when you feel the near immediate results: The knot between your shoulder blades loosens just a bit, your fingers relax their grip on the steering wheel, your breathing noticeably slows.
When you finally arrive at your destination, you brave the cold in the parking lot and welcome the blast of heat as the store doors open. But you’re dismayed to find that the purchase of one small bottle of OTC meds requires that you stand and wait, and wait, and wait.
And wait some more.
If only you weren’t propped up on just a half cup of coffee and the last of the Advil, which is of course what brought you here.
Yes, there was a reason I was curious about the queuing conundrum recently.
You can only imagine how irritable the cashier must be, as you try to put yourself in her place. Where are her co-workers? Where is the store manager? Why does she have to deal with a rapidly growing line of grumbling customers?
You note the tall scruffy middle-aged man in front of you, fidgeting with his keys. You listen to a woman behind you as she sighs, repeatedly. You glance to your left and see a bundled up mother with her bundled up babe; her cart is full and she’s staring into her smartphone.
Inching closer to the front of the check-out line, you notice the cashier flashing a smile. Her body language is calm and she seems to lean in toward each customer. And they seem to respond, politely, as if the experience is suddenly lightening.
The Health Benefits of Smiling
So why is it that a bright smile can make such a difference in how we feel, whether we’re on the receiving end or offering a display of our own pearly whites?
Lifehack provides a nice explanation of the health benefits of smiling:
… endorphins are released when you smile… triggered by the movements of the muscles in your face, which is interpreted by your brain… Endorphins are responsible for making us feel happy, and they also help lower stress levels.
And in case you were wondering about the pros and cons of faking it, it seems that the advantages are in our favor as:
Faking a smile or laugh works as well as the real thing — the brain doesn’t differentiate between real or fake as it interprets the positioning of the facial muscles in the same way.
Should You Fake a Smile?
As to the question of whether or not to fake what you aren’t feeling, I’ve always been ambivalent.
Fake a smile at a social engagement because it’s the proper and polite thing to do? Definitely. It’s a matter of manners.
Fake a smile for a child or a friend? Again, I say yes. It’s not about you.
But our culture of “fake it til you make it” when taken to an extreme? Our vain insistence on a pretty smile for the camera or a pretty face on everything? I struggle with the inauthenticity of it all, and recall my European in-laws who used to ask: Why do you Americans smile so much?
Surely there is a fine line between positioning ourselves to improve mood and performance, and being so intent on masking what we feel that we become utterly disingenuous.
What Makes You Smile?
Do you know what makes you smile?
- phone calls from my kids
- pictures from when they were little
- Bridget Jones… an infinite number of times
- Bill Maher… when I’m up for political snark
- my favorite works of art
- a child’s laughter
Also cause for a sentimental smile, found photographs of my parents or grandparents when they were young, including a lovely shot of my mother as a teenager in the 1940s. And yes, she’s beaming.
No (Wo)Man Is an Island
Here’s my dilemma. Smiling comes more easily when I manage to get off the island — the Isle of Me, Myself and I, where I am generally holed up and concentrating, often for days on end.
I enjoy my work and I enjoy working from home, but even with Skype meetings and conference calls, my “human” interaction is limited. And I realize that I rarely get off my island, which isn’t intentional, but it is typical. Freelance isolation is an occupational hazard.
Sure, I can be seen strolling my neighborhood at a brisk pace, picking through produce at my local Whole Foods, or running the random errand at a nearby mall. But otherwise, I may go a week or two (or more) without experiencing the world firsthand. And I suspect the downside is a hit to both physical and mental health, not to mention refilling the creative well, absent more in-person engagement.
And I welcome that engagement in all its messy glory: a moment of eye contact, an intoxicating scent, the surprise of an energizing smile, possibly my own.
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