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The Power of the Smile

Practice
Two people smile

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Intentionally smiling can be part of your spiritual practice.

I recently played a word association game with my eight-year-old granddaughter, Kya. I said “peanut butter,” she said “jelly.” I said “dog,” she said “cat.” I said “smile,” she said “happy.” After this game, I reflected on the association we often make between smiling and happiness. As Kya’s response indicated, when we see someone smiling, we tend to assume they’re happy. Being happy, we think, comes first:  People feel happy and then they smile. But can it work the other way around: people smile and then they’re happy? Both scientific evidence and personal experience support this idea.

Science tells us that a smile has the power to not only impact you but also the people around you in positive ways. One study used MRI technology to investigate ways in which facial actions can initiate particular emotions. When people are asked to use the muscles in their face to show such emotions as fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness, they actually experience elements of the corresponding emotion. This is due to the fact that the muscles in your face let your brain know that you’re smiling. Your brain then generates the chemicals that make you feel happy.

Perhaps you don’t need research to tell you that smiling can make you feel happy. Perhaps you’ve experienced it personally. I know I have. I first learned about the power of the smile during a meditation retreat several years ago. At one point during the retreat, we were invited to silently think of certain mantras during our in and out breaths. The mantras consisted of four sets of words: “in-out, slow-deep, smile-relax, present moment-beautiful moment.” 

I readily accepted the relevance of the other three sets, but “smile-relax” seemed somewhat out of place. I was looking for depth through a meditation practice, not enjoyment and relaxation. After following the directions, however, I soon discovered deeper meanings to the smile-relax mantra. I discovered, too, that just thinking about this mantra brought a smile to my face. And with that smile, I felt a sense of happiness.

I’ve since adopted smiling as a spiritual practice for responding to frustration, pain, and discomfort. While this practice helps me appreciate the power of smiling for diffusing stress and promoting happiness, it’s also taught me something about the deeper meaning of the ups and downs of life. Feeling happy when things go our way is easy, but smiling when things get tough can be a challenge. Doing so, however, helps me move beyond the labeling of events as good or bad to a spiritual reality that enriches my experience of life.

I’ve discovered the power of the smile in some surprising ways. Yesterday, my first reaction to cutting my finger was to focus on the pain and inconvenience this caused me. But even before reaching for a bandage, I remembered to smile. My focus switched immediately to healing versus pain. Yes, the pain and inconvenience were still there, but I was more attuned to the healing that I would soon experience than the short-lived pain of a simple cut on my finger. Another surprising place where I experienced the power of the smile was in my yoga practice. There are days when maintaining my balance during the tree poise proves to be challenging. Smiling during this poise, however, helps me stay balanced for a longer time and with less energy. I assume smiling relieves tension, and that relaxed muscles are easier to control than tensed muscles.

I’ve read that “it’s in your blood” to smile and that the act of smiling promotes healthier functioning of  our immune system. Researchers examining this phenomenon tell us that a daily dose of smiling can promote our physical well-being.

But the power of the smile is more than a personal thing. It can extend to people around you, as well. We might think of this as the ripple effect. 

Try this. Walk into a room and greet people with a smile. Then watch what happens. Typically, other people in the room will return your greeting with a smile on their face. You smile, they smile, and everyone feels a touch of  happiness.  

But is a smile appropriate in today’s troubled world? This question stops me in my tracks. I wonder, “Is it OK to be happy in a world filled with greed, environmental destruction, and other forms of violence?" 

I then recall Mary Oliver’s words: “Happiness, if done right, is a kind of holiness.” Yes, it’s OK to smile -- even necessary to do so. Just as smiling helps me stay physically balanced during my yoga practice, so smiling during times of anxiety helps me stay emotionally and spiritually balanced.  And I believe this, too, has a ripple effect. 

Happiness, if done right, isn’t selfish. While smiling can generate individual happiness, it also spreads joy to others and, interestingly, broadcasts a cooperative disposition. What could be more effective in healing social wounds than cooperation? With this in mind, I’ve come to appreciate smiling as one of the most nonviolent forms of communication. 

Smiling, alone, will not save the world. It can, however, make the world a more pleasant and peaceful place to live.

Keep reading: Happy pictures on the fridge can help you lose weight


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