When I was a teenager, my dad told me a story about when he was a teenager. He recalled having a dreadful day and feeling decidedly downcast, and as he walked through the hall at school, a girl he didn’t know smiled at him. As he told me the story, he grinned at the recollection and shook his head incredulously, “It made all the difference. It’s amazing the power of a smile.”
“Everytime you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” ― Mother Teresa
Smile Power works wonders inside and out. Neuroscience, psychology and experience offer lots of evidence to support that smiling has positive effects to both the smiler and the “smilee” (someone who sees a smile). In his book, Just One Thing, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson highlights several smiling benefits:
- Calms the stress response and releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine
- Inclines the smiler to see things positively
- Enhances “approach behaviors” which allow the smiler to see opportunities and pursue them confidently
- Mirror neurons in the brain (that are at the root of empathy), allow a “smilee” to feel and act better which then reflects back to the smiler who feels and acts even better, and so on and so on
- When a smilee sees a smile, their evolutionary inclination to be guarded around others is toned way down, making the smiler more approachable
Just for grins, click here for more on the science of smiling in this great article that sums up much of the smile research.
No kind of smile, not even an authentic one, cures unhappiness or grief. But if I’m feeling neutral, smiling nudges me into the feel-good (or at least feel-better) zone. I may not be feeling down or hostile, but when I’m caught up in the doings of my day, focused on the next thing, I may put my head down and LOOK like I am. (I remember this when I lived in Boston: dozens and dozens of people walking on a sidewalk, riding a subway, waiting in line at a bank with their heads down and their faces blank.) Smiling pops me back into connection and helps me feel and act better. As a double bonus, smiling reverberates out to others, too.
These days, I make it a practice to look at people and smile, reminding myself that everybody just wants to be happy and everybody is carrying a heavy load. Sometimes people look at me like I’m nuts, others look around as if I must be looking at someone else, but most people smile back. And when that happens, it is like the sun popping out from behind the clouds. It feels good.
“The world is like a mirror; frown at it, and it frowns at you. Smile and it smiles, too” ― Herbert Samuels
In Nia, students often tell me they hate the mirrors. I get it: self-judgment and comparison (aptly called the “killer of all Joy”) can be fierce in the glow of the florescent lights. Could it be that if we are looking at our own image with criticism, that the scowl is what we see and it feels bad. What if we smiled and offered friendliness and care to ourselves as we look in those big mirrors? Interestingly, research shows that seeing myself smile in the mirror has almost a double effect!
Lately, I’ve been playing with smiling not just with my face, but with my body. Ever see someone smile with just their mouth and not their eyes? Not terribly convincing, is it? Or someone whose face smiles, but whose body is contracted or closed. One of my teachers noticed this in my movement: that I can be smiling with my face (maybe even an all-out, full wattage grin) and my body doesn’t reflect the smile. What would it look and feel like to smile with your arms and hands? With the movement of your core and heart? With the steps and stances of your base? Sometimes, when I’m struggling or having a difficult time, if I let my body smile into movement, the genuine feeling moves into my heart and my face. Smiling is infectious between and within people!
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh
This week, play with meeting life with a smile – in your face and your body. Notice what gets reflected back from yourself and all the lucky others who you see along the way! Shine on.