You don’t feel like smiling. I get it.
You just got back from holiday vacation and the work is piled up on your desk and all those days of relaxation seem to have vanished as if they’d never happened. Your car engine is making a grinding noise every time you accelerate and you’re afraid to bring it to your mechanic for fear the words “rebuild your transmission” might come up in the conversation. You had a fight with your partner before you left the house this morning and now it’s noon and no apology has been tendered on either side (and you know this because you certainly aren’t going to apologize and you’ve checked your texts for their apology every three-and-a-half minutes since you arrived at work.) The toys you bought your kids for Christmas are already abandoned in pieces on the floor and when you ask your little darlings to at least put them up on the shelf so you can vacuum, they look at you like you are speaking another language.
I mean, really. What have you got to smile about?
Because maybe you don’t actually need something to be happy about in order to smile.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has notably stated: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile. And sometimes your smile is the source of your joy.”
His assertion doesn’t just have spiritual resonance. It has a basis in scientific fact. It turns out that the simple act of smiling, of turning up the corners of your mouth, sends signals to the brain that you are, in fact, happy.
I do this exercise of smiling-for-no-good-reason frequently. In the midst of a stressful or tense (or even a dull) situation, I close my eyes, I turn up the corners of my mouth, take a few slow, gentle breaths. I soften the space between my brows, allow the smile to move to my eyes, and then wait for the neurological magic to happen — for the brain to respond, “Well then, I guess we’re happy now.” Then I open my eyes and let them gently fall on something simple: A drifting cloud, a sharpened pencil, a photograph, a cup of coffee. It’s as if my brain, having received the signal that it is, indeed happy is trying to do a quick matching exercise. “Ah, I see. I’m happy because the sky is blue,” or “I’m happy because my pencil is sharpened,” or “I’m happy because I have a hot cup of coffee,” or “I’m happy because — even though my kids won’t pick up their toys, they really are wonderful people.” We don’t need complicated reasons to smile. In fact the simpler, the better — because the simpler reasons are more plentiful. Wherever you stand, there are thousands to choose from.
It may feel awkward at first, this smiling for no reason — this smiling that oddly (but effectively!) precedes happiness. You may at first feel more than a little ridiculous Buddha-smiling in the waiting room of the car mechanic where you’re about to be presented with a fifteen-hundred dollar diagnosis. Your mind might just recoil at the thought of smiling while looking at the empty screen of your smartphone that still doesn’t say, “Sorry, Babe. I was a jerk.” You may think it conveys the altogether wrong message to un-scowl your eyebrows when your kids have left a mess on the floor. You may worry that your co-workers think you’ve lost your mind as you sit at your desk beaming at the sharpened pencil in your hand. And they just might. But, so what really? I’ve had people actually come up to me as I stood in line at the bank smiling, asking me “What are you smiling about?” And I tell them honestly, “Nothing. I’m just feeling happy.” They’ll shrug. And sometimes (because smiles are contagious) they’ll shake their head and smile, too.
Smiling for no reason like going for a run on a cold morning. The first few blocks may feel like hell. Every breath feels like a knife in your lungs, your muscles are about as limber as a two-by-four, and every step rattles your bones. You may think, “What was I thinking? I should have just stayed in bed.” But eventually, the body hits a rhythm. The breath relaxes. The muscles limber. And the body awakens. The exercise precedes the feeling of well-being.
And just so, a smile can feel like a stretch sometimes. But, stretch anyway.
Smiling is yoga for the face. Get some exercise.