‘Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain‘ I read recently in a Psychology Today article by Ronald E. Riggio. He went on to say ‘The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness…’
I often find myself smiling at strangers, not just the people who are close to me, such as my family, friends, students, colleagues. But in pondering this topic, I’m aware that smiling when I haven’t felt the inner impulse to do so, has at times created a disconnect from my authentic self. I’m also aware of the ‘positive thinking’ cult – the idea that good things will happen if we simply will them to happen hard enough via positive thoughts and a determinedly smiley face. Several years ago I read the self-help book ‘The Secret’. The author’s evangelical diktat was to think positive and think right – bountiful happiness, health and wealth would surely ensue. This must have appealed to me at first but many years of Hakomi informed therapy and meditation practice later – I am wiser. When undergoing therapy back in the nineties, my therapist often pointed out that I was smiling brightly whilst regaling her with unhappy details of my life. These interventions gradually helped me become more aware of my true feelings and gain more congruence between them and outward expression. Similarly a daily practice of mindful yoga and meditation continue to help me on the path towards authenticity. These days when I smile – I mean it.
Where do the concepts of ‘smiling at all costs’ and of ‘positive thinking’ come from? Possibly the former has more British cultural origins, the latter approach probably has origins in the U.S. At some point they’ve become mixed together in the melting pot of modern day culture. The British habit of smiling (when actually sad) perhaps arose alongside keeping up appearances and maintaining a stiff upper lip. I vividly remember being told as a child that ‘the wind would change’ and my grumpy/sulky/sad face would stay like that. Negative feelings were not allowed. My father used to read this poem to us – I guess to banish the grumpy/sulky/sad faces!
No matter how grouchy you’re feeling
A smile is more or less healing
it grows in a wreath
all around the front teeth
thus preventing the face from congealing
There’s no doubt that the simple act of smiling often makes us feel good. But in his piece ‘There’s Magic in Your Smile‘ Riggio describes a bad day in the life of a generally happy, well balanced person – this is a very different scenario from a person in a depressive state trying to put on a brave, smiley face. I think that for feel-good effects to arise from smiling, there must be an underlying feeling of safety – the low mood being just a temporary one. If an individual is in a depressive state and they’re asked to ‘cheer up’ or smile, this may create a lack of congruence between their inner experience and outer expression. The effect can be disastrous, I knew a young girl who committed suicide as a teenager. The tragedy was a massive shock to her family and friends, compounded by the fact they’d had no idea she was feeling depressed, let alone suicidal. It was described at the time as ‘smiling depression’.
Positive thinking that involves unrealistic goals, is likely to create a similar disconnect from authenticity. We need some goals and intentions in life but if the aim is for happiness, these should have personal meaning that’s aligned with authentic self. Just as making a smiley face belying sadness won’t lead to a feel-good party in the brain, ultimately, nor will irrational, unrealistic optimism.
Over time, the simple practice of mindful yoga and meditation brings awareness of thoughts arising in the moment. Emotions attached to the thoughts are witnessed – creating space for reflection. Yoga practitioners gradually gain equanimity – learning to tolerate uncertainty and discomfort, plus perspective – neither catastrophising nor irrationally positive. Happiness (the peaceful sort) can be the result!