“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” -Thich Naht Hanh
Thich Naht Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk “. . . suggests bringing a slight but real smile to our lips many times throughout the day, whether we are meditating or simply stopping for a red light. The power of a smile to open and relax us is confirmed by modern science. The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight, fight, or freeze response. A smile is the yes of unconditional friendliness that welcomes experience without fear.” (p.84 Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, PhD)
SMILE! IT COULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER
Charles Darwin first posed the idea that emotional responses influence our feelings in 1872. “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it,” he wrote. The esteemed 19th-century psychologist William James went so far as to assert that if a person does not express an emotion, he has not felt it at all. Although few scientists would agree with such a statement today, there is evidence that emotions involve more than just the brain. The face, in particular, appears to play a big role.
“It would appear that the way we feel emotions isn’t just restricted to our brain—there are parts of our bodies that help and reinforce the feelings we’re having,” says Michael Lewis, “It’s like a feedback loop.”
The concept works the opposite way, too—enhancing emotions rather than suppressing them. People who frown during an unpleasant procedure report feeling more pain than those who do not, according to a study published in May 2008 in the Journal of Pain.
But we have all heard that it is bad to repress our feelings—so what happens if a person intentionally suppresses his or her negative emotions on an ongoing basis? Work by psychologist Judith Grob of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands suggests that this suppressed negativity may “leak” into other realms of a person’s life. In a series of studies she performed for her Ph.D. thesis and has submitted for publication, she asked subjects to look at disgusting images while hiding their emotions or while holding pens in their mouths in such a way that prevented them from frowning. A third group could react as they pleased. As expected, the subjects in both groups that did not express their emotions reported feeling less disgusted afterward than control subjects.
No one yet knows why our facial expressions influence our emotions as they seem to. The associations in our mind between how we feel and how we react may be so strong that our expressions simply end up reinforcing our emotions—there may be no evolutionary reason for the connection. Even so, our faces do seem to communicate our states of mind not only to others but also to ourselves. “I smile, so I must be happy,” Grob says. (Adapted from ‘Smile! It could make you happier’ by Melinda Wenner in the Scientific American, October 14th, 2009)