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How to spread joy with a smile

Too often, as I walk around while people watching, the expressions on the faces of those I come across reflect tension, anxiety, fear, anger, defensiveness or defeat. So it’s a delightful surprise to see someone going about their day with a smile on their face. It may be a private smile from remembering past joys, a smile that is lingering from being coaxed out by a joke, an act of kindness or love; it could simply be a smile of self-satisfaction from the pleasure that can come from realising that everything will be OK in the end.

Whatever the cause, a smile is something that touches everyone you come in contact with, whether it’s a conscious sharing or not. The smile is a force to be reckoned with: it can lift your spirits, renew hope and revitalise both the body and the mind.

In physiological terms, a smile is a reaction to stimuli. When we feel pleasure, signals pass through that part of our brain that processes emotion. As well as making our mouth muscles and the muscles that raise our cheeks move, a smile also contracts the muscles around the eye, making our eyes crease up and eyebrows dip slightly. With a true smile our eyes light up, our cheeks may flush slightly and feel-good hormones are released through our system.

We bond with whoever has made us smile, we build relationships with the intimacy that a smile generates and we break down barriers that may have stood before. For scientists and researchers, smiling has physical and psychological benefits that are wide-ranging, dealing with many of the afflictions that seem to be so common in our lives today. From disease to emotional torment, a simple smile can heal us, body and mind.

As social beings, smiling is crucial to our emotional wellbeing. When linked to a sense of belonging and security, a smile can go a long way toward drawing others to us and reinforcing or strengthening the relationships we already have. Smiling attracts others. In a room full of people, those who are laughing, smiling and engaged are the ones we find most attractive, that our eyes and attention continually drift to. We want to share in the pleasure and happiness evoked by a smile. We want to be in on whatever it is that has made this person glow.

While most of us would prefer to smile than to frown, within the course of a day our mood may change many times — even over the course of an hour. Though our day may start with a smile we can become weary, frustrated, tense or upset. We can take on board someone else’s issues and feel their anxiety or emotional pain. We can lower our defences and succumb to the negativity that flows around us.

These are the situations that can cause us to lose our smile, to cause us to falter, but we need not let a darkening of our mood take over. Researchers have found that a smile can change your mood, whether it’s spontaneous or forced. A smile can sometimes win a bad mood over, releasing tension and recalibrating our sense of perspective.

The endorphins (natural painkillers) and serotonin that are released when we smile do wonders for our health and wellbeing. It is a cocktail that reduces stress, boosts our immune system and lowers our blood pressure. It boosts optimism and confidence, allows us to bond with those around us and improves our energy levels.

While a smile is easy when things are going our way and everything seems right, maintaining a smile — and as a consequence our happiness — is most crucial when we are being challenged by events or others. Fortunately there are ways in which we can ‘trick’ ourselves into finding that equilibrium again.

 

Gratitude

Counting your blessings is something many of us don’t stop to do in the hustle of daily life. Our obligations seem to get in the way, blocking our view of all of the wonderful things we have in our lives and the successes we’ve achieved. Apart from giving us a sense of perspective and putting a smile on our face when we feel hard done by or overwhelmed and dissatisfied, practicing gratitude can have far-reaching impacts. Research at the University of California has found that experiencing gratitude can improve our physical health, raise our energy levels and relieve pain and fatigue.

One of the best ways to do this is with a gratitude journal, something which we can add to and also reflect back on during difficult moments. To gain the most benefit though, researchers found that experiencing gratitude is not simply about jotting down a quick list. It is about elaborating on these things and really thinking about why they make us feel grateful. A journal allows us to consider why and how we are grateful and to continue to add to these as we grow and change.

 

Kindness

There is nothing that can bring a smile to your face more quickly than sharing someone else’s pleasure, and random acts of kindness are a great stimulus. Not only will you put a smile on your own face; you will also lighten another person’s burden. Random acts of kindness have been shown in a number of studies to make us feel more capable and more generous. It gives us a greater sense of connection to our community and to others and it gives us a sense of approval.

While the happiness of others as a result of our kindness will put a smile on your lips and boost your happiness levels, research suggests that the glow of kindness doesn’t last forever and that if we can act kindly on a regular basis the benefits will be long lasting and significant.

 

Mindfulness

As a meditation technique, mindfulness reminds us to live in the moment and to experience the world and our lives to the fullest. It reminds us to listen to the world and our bodies and to quiet our minds in order to enable the full range of our senses to be stimulated. While mindfulness encompasses a range of activities that can lead us to connect with our world in each and every moment, it also offers a modicum of protection against the moments that will inevitably crop up to wipe a smile from our faces.

In practising mindfulness, it is sometimes appropriate to take a step back from a situation, to step out of our bodies and observe the moment from a different vantage point. In doing so, we can disengage ourselves emotionally from a troubling situation, from people who frustrate or upset us and from situations where our control is minimal.

These are the moments that can steal your smile, but with mindfulness you needn’t let this mood settle in. With this strategy we can keep our emotions and confidence intact, letting the disturbance wash over us and allowing our smile to resettle.

 

Forgiveness

Holding onto negative experiences and the feelings these create makes it difficult for us to keep our smile and benefit in any meaningful way. Yet we are often unaware that we’re letting these moments from our past remain in our lives to affect our way of being. Learning to forgive others and, importantly, to forgive ourselves, can release us from a good deal of angst and despair, releasing tension from our bodies and our hearts.

Forgiveness is difficult. Many of us imagine that if we forgive others we’re saying the behaviour that has hurt us is in some way acceptable. Unfortunately, by holding on to our hurt and refusing to forgive, we’re doing more damage to ourselves — our happiness and our physical health — than we are to the one who needs to be forgiven. As a difficult a task as it may seem, it is vital that we learn to forgive for our own wellbeing.

While circumstances may mean we cannot offer forgiveness in the flesh or if we do not feel comfortable formally and personally offering forgiveness, it’s still possible to go through the ritual. Writing down the act or words that hurt us, the way in which it made us feel and finally a few words of forgiveness can help us to move on.

When it comes to forgiving ourselves, the process can be even harder. Too many of us spoil our happiness and impede our ability to smile because we are constantly monitoring our success and behaviour. We criticise ourselves relentlessly, unable to forget past indiscretions or failures. Forgiving self can be achieved if we acknowledge that we’re not perfect and cannot possibly be, if we embrace our foibles, if we accept our failures and learn from our mistakes.

There is much we can do to maximise our opportunities to smile and to offer smiles to others. It is simply about being aware of our thoughts, being generous with ourselves and learning to live in every glorious moment of our lives.

Nikki Williamson wrote about raising confident kids in WellBeing 110. She is a freelance writer with a special interest in health, lifestyle and relationship issues.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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