The Shadow of Your Smile – Part 1

Mona Lisa

While researching an article in Psychology Today on the benefits of anger (for a future post), I stumbled across an essay by Dr. Jeremy Dean on the many forms of smiling and how our smiles benefit several areas of our lives.  I’ve often considered the many different messages sent by the smile, and found Dean’s list intriguing.

Last week, while observing an instructor at my place of work, I was taken by how easily she had engaged her students during a session on early childhood music curriculum.  My seat in the back on the room afforded me the advantage of watching the entire group respond to the discussion and activities.  It was delightful to observe how quickly and easily she engaged her students.  The rapport she had built over the weeks was unmistakable.  Early in the session, I noted at one particular moment every student was smiling in response to her comments and encouragement to consider their own ideas about the role of music in their lives, and woo them into some singing and dancing.   She had built both trust and credibility with her group.

Dean discusses how smiling proves advantageous in building trust and social connections, enhancing our sex appeal, and managing stress, among other pay-offs.  He cites various smile studies in his list, and while some ideas aren’t necessarily novel, they do offer some interesting findings.

One study indicated that smiling can result in lighter punishment after transgressing a rule — and what’s interesting, is the kind of smile doesn’t matter, in this case, according to LaFrance and Hecht, authors of the 1995 study.  Whether the smile is false or genuine, we tend to let each other off the hook when a smile is involved.

Has smiling helped you survive an embarrassing social event ?  Dean cites a study that suggests our downcast eyes and chuckle are intended to help us muddle through the embarrassment and sustain our social connection.  The smile helps us save face.  ( This downward look and laugh begin, by the way, about midway through the second year of life.)

Has smiling helped you navigate an emotional upset?  Many psychologists claim the very act of smiling elicits positives emotions and serves as a mood lifter.

Children’s smiles, while particularly endearing, actually start out reflexively.  Take a look at this newborn.

Newborn Showing Reflex Smile

The child is not likely smiling in recognition of another human being, but demonstrating a reflexive smile.  Within a few months, though, he’ll smile in recognition of another human face, in response to an intriguing or familiar sound, or to a tactile stimulus such as being bathed or in touching a patient family pet.

Baby Smiling Eyes Wide

Does this not make you smile?  Huh?

Baby Boy Laughing

And what about this one?  I defy you not to smile back.  Doesn’t he look like he just heard the best punch line ever?

Group of Smiling Children

They are very sweet, too.  Are you smiling back?

I have often thought about why we do or don’t smile, and how this is probably influenced by an interplay of temperament and environment.  I am taken by people who offer that genuine, engaging, Duchenne grin to which psychologists refer.  Named for French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, it is like the double-whammy smile because its not only turns up the corners of your mouth but also brings your cheek muscles up to your eyes.  That’s a serious beam.

One of the first church choir directors with whom I worked often talked about how we can “hear” the smile in a singer’s voice.  Many years later, when I began cantoring at a different church, I made a conscious effort to smile at the congregation when announcing a hymn.  It not only seemed to help me connect with others through the music, but also calmed me if I was nervous about a particular hymn or phrase (which was more often than I like to admit).

Years ago I worked to develop a habit of smiling as I enter the room at the start of a class.  Not all students respond, though many do — and I think it may not really be lost on those who don’t respond (that’s not my expectation ).  It benefits me as much as it may benefit them.  It sets a tone for the time you will spend together.

I try to smile when I have to record an expired voicemail greeting at work.  Whoever is on the other end of the line is getting an impression of my program through my voice, and I’d rather it create a good impression.

I have also noticed that a conscious effort to smile in my hallway comings and goings nearly always nets a smile in response.  The truth is that I don’t perceive myself as a person who smiles a big full grin naturally. On some level, this is a learned behavior — a purposeful effort to more carefully consider how I am connecting with others.   Early impressions are that it is reciprocal.

One of Dean’s list of smiling benefits is the power of insight and perspective — literally and figuratively.   Smiling may allow us to think more broadly, and to be more flexible in our problem-solving.

But my favorite idea about smiling doesn’t come from Dean’s list.  It is actually from a passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s huge best-seller, alluded to in a previous post — Eat, Pray, Love.  In the segment of the book on Gilbert’s travel to Bali, she describes times spent with Ketut Liyer, the medicine man she had met on a previous trip there.  During one of their early conversations, they discuss meditation and her own search for God.  Ketut criticizes most yoga and meditation as “too hard,” and urges Gilbert to try an easy meditation.  Here is an abbreviated version of his explanation:

“Why they always look so serious in Yoga?  You make serious face like this, you scare away good energy.  To meditate, only you must smile.  Smile with face, smile with mind, and good energy will come to you  and clean away dirty energy.  Even smile in your liver…  Not to hurry, not to try too hard.  Too serious, you make you sick.  You can calling good energy with a smile.”

What a lovely idea.  I pledge to try it beginning tonight, and to check in after two weeks and assess the results.  I shall report back here at that time.

So what is your take on the positive aspects of smiling?  Share!  Everyone!


We know also , though, that smiles aren’t always positive.  Watch for Part II on the Smile.




Spotted Wren

The other evening, in the midst of some tornadic spring cleaning, I heard a dull “thunking” sound on the first floor of the house.  It barely registered as I zotted from room to room in my usual butterfly style.  I assumed  it was my cat in the midst of a feline crazy-jump-and-run.

A few moments later, on my way to the garage, I discovered the source of the sound.  A spotted wren had flown into the sliding glass door on the back deck.  It lay on is back, twitching slightly, its dark round eyes opening and closing in a dull motion,  legs curling up toward its abdomen, a few tiny, soft feathers already tumbling away from its body.  This was a scene I’d observed a few times before,  when birds had flown into this same spot or into one of the living room windows.

My reaction to these events has been the same every time.  I cry.  I am consistently done in by the sight of animal suffering, be it live or taped.

My heart pounds when I observe my cat pursue the poor mouse that had the misfortunate of an ill-calculated foray into the kitchen, driven to the point of exhaustion and rodent-lunacy as it  runs in mini mouse laps, before succumbing to the final pounce.

It was horrible to watch our German shepherd, Duke, stiffened by the effects of arthritis and unable to fend off attacks from other neighborhood dogs who sensed his weakness.

It’s unbearable to watch National Geographic and Animal Planet episodes showing the requisite ultra slow-motion scene of the cougar taking down the elk that took off too slowly; the tiger running down the deer that didn’t keep up with its herd; the pack of wolves surrounding the weak antelope; the lion outrunning the terrified zebra, leaping to wrench its neck; the hawk swooping down to snare the baby rabbit in its talons, as mother rabbit leaps frantically and then stops, stunned.  I appreciate that this is how the animal world must function, but that doesn’t mean I handle these laws of nature well.    I still cannot explain how I managed to sit through the entire length of March of the Penguins without dissolving into a puddle on the sticky theatre floor.

Last fall a robin struck the living room window and died within moments on the edge of the planter.  I watched as it shuddered, its head at an odd angle, probably because its neck was broken by the impact, before going completely still.  I cried, of course, then bundled it into a plastic bag and discarded it.

There was one isolated incident, though, with a happy ending.  A couple of summers ago, a fluttering sound in the bushes in the back yard caught my attention. Nothing was discernible at first.  But as I ventured closer I made out a robin hanging upside down, its leg tangled in some plastic thread.  It was frantically trying to free itself, alternately flapping its wings and then going still with exhaustion.  After running to the kitchen for a pair of scissors, I waited for the next time it went quiet, then swooped in to snip the thread.  It flapped wildly as I did so — then took flight instantly.

What a feeling!  This time I wasn’t Weepy Sheila.  I was … Super Animal Saver Sheila.  I was … St. Sheila of Assisi.

But this most recent accident was painful to watch.  I stared from the other side of the sliding door.  I’m not sure how much of my attention was  emotionality and how much was a good dose of morbid curiosity.

Eventually the bird’s eyes closed completely, as if in slumber, and its body rocked to one side, immobile.

I pulled two plastic bags from a cabinet — one to serve as a scooping tool, the other as an aviary coffin.  I’d done this before.  But I couldn’t follow through yet this time.  I was still upset, so I left the bags on the kitchen table and resumed my cleaning.  About thirty minutes went by.

Upon  returning to the deck, now prepared to put this animal to rest, I peered through the sliding door.

The creature was upright.  It was crouched low to the ground, still,  and staring directly through the glass.

A second later it took off, flying over the row of bushes into the next door neighbor’s backyard, dipping once before re-gaining altitude, then dipping once more, in a deep swoop, before shooting upward to land on the branch of a maple tree, blending into the bark so that it was no longer visible.

Wren Flying

Talk about your happy endings.

Talk about inspiring.

Call me sentimental.  But as I gazed in the direction of the maple tree, it was hard not to take a little lesson from this half-ounce fledgling.

Sometimes life knocks you cold.  But you come to.  And you pick yourself up.  And you climb back in the air.

Hope and optimism.

Blend these two noble attitudes, and you have Hoptimism.

Do you have a hoptimistic experience to share?  C’mon.  Everybody!



My Top Ten List of One-Liners

Cartoon Figures Laughing

Are you a fan of jokes?  Humorous anecdotes?  Yes?  Me too!  I’m crazy for jokes, puns, humorous stories, children’s charming statements, and most especially,  one-liners.

My appreciation for one-liners is in their compactness and humorous punch, their auditory appeal, and the instant response they call up in me:  a belly-laugh.   There is a prime selection that I never tire of  (of which I never tire?*), no matter the number of times I read them or hear them.  They just make me laugh all over again.  It’s delicious.

My personal favorites are a product of my family culture, handed down from my maternal grandmother, maternal uncle, and my mother.  They were a witty bunch.  These deep-source one-liners (I just coined that phrase, by the way), from my family of origin, may certainly have their roots in broader culture.  But they came to me in my childhood, either directly or through story — and their value is in the timelessness and the way they so cleverly encapsulate the absurdities of life.  They are applicable to diverse situations and individuals – proof of their versatility.

Other one-liners came to me through popular culture, friends, or unfortunate circumstance.

Here’s  The List.

10.  If you get through this you can play any bar in Chicago.

Origin:  My friend Karen and I were singing at the wedding reception of one of my teachers many years ago.  The sound system was poor, children climbed up on the mini stage with us and tugged at our dresses, or fought at our feet as we sang.  Most folks appeared unaware of our presence in the room.  At the end of the evening, a quiet gentleman approached us and gently offered the above assessment.  We mumbled our thanks.  He will never know the longevity and meaning of his statement.  I have used it for many years now with my early childhood education students, to buoy them and lighten their anxiety when they have to teach a song to their classmates or present a lesson plan.

9.  The church is drier than my mother’s pork chops.  This statement was emailed by my musician friend, Nicki Denofrio (check out her blog, to the choir as a warning prior to a rehearsal, along with a suggestion to bring a bottle of water.  And this is miles away from her best material.  Sheesh.

8.  I could eat that and hold one foot in the fire.  Stated by Winona Judd in an interview (media source unknown).  My personal application of this masterful observation:  at meal settings when paella, sweet potato fries, raspberry scones, or triple chocolate cookie balls are presented.


7.  Wash up as far as possible, wash down as far as possible, and then wash possible.  Shared with my siblings and me by my super uncle, Herbert Victor Juul — the most sublime uncle any child could ever be blessed to have in one’s life.  Yes, you  must do a complete job, musn’t  you?

6.  It’s gone to God, to hell with it.  My best memory is of my mother stating this when a food product was spilled or dropped on the kitchen floor.  She heard that from her mother.  I invite my siblings to check the accuracy of my memory on this one.  Y’all?

Cartoon of Family at Dinner Table

5.  He likes work so much he’ll lie right down beside it.  Uttered by my maternal grandmother, Nana — Kathryn Juul — the consummate grandmother;  no specific anecdotal reference, but the statement is self-explanatory, no?

4.  You should remember your prayers as well.  Uttered by my grandmother in response to any enthusiastically-shared naughty joke or bawdy anecdote.  Not atypical for a Catholic family.

3.  I’ll never make me own outa you.  Uttered by my grandmother when one engaged in less-than-socially-acceptable behavior.  Not complete dis-ownership, but robust enough to get your attention.

Stick Figure Silhouettes of Children

2.  Make yourself useful as well as ornamental.  Again, uttered by my grandmother, as an admonition to more directly participate in the task at hand.  This was the get-with-the-program message.

1.  If you can dance like that you’ll never have to work for a living.  And yes, my personal favorite, from Nana — perhaps a tongue-in-cheek observation of a Quixotic aspiration.

Row of Cartoon People Laughing

*This is a shout-out to my brother Mike, who shared a one-liner with me years ago, by Winston Churchill, to convey his perspective on the grammar rule regarding ending sentences with prepositions:  “That is foolishness up with which I shall not put.”

OK!  Your turn!  What’s your favorite one-liner?  Share!  No dilly-dallying!



I’d Even Wear a Toga if it Would Help My Yoga

Woman in Yoga Pose

A friend recently passed along her copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love.  I am quite likely the last person on the planet to be personally acquainted with this book, a charming and humorous personal spiritual journey, which, among other Very Important Things, has reminded me of my fitful efforts at yoga and meditation over the last several years.

Meditation Image

My initial efforts at yoga were spawned by work-related stress.  My purchase of a beginner’s Gaiam VHS tape, I convinced myself, would create the mind-body balance I so deeply desired and would propel me forward, spiritually and psychically, to peacefully transcend the petty professional pitfalls the plagued me (but apparently would not prevent me from creating an excuse to insert some disputably substantive alliteration right here).

I rousted myself at 5am several mornings a week, attempting to empty my mind as I worked through the 25 minutes of stretches.  I did this for a few months, and fell out of the habit as the daily schedule changed.

The AM yoga tape was replaced with a Laughter Yoga class at my local park district.  What a hoot it was.  We all left with tears streaming to our chins and down our throats.  I have taught my students and workshop participants the “Very good!  Very good!  Yay!” to replace applause following presentations.  It is always a hit.  And then the class was cancelled.

I have purchased various daily meditation collections, intended to focus my mind and set the tone for the day, and actually employed some carefully chosen mantras to assist with work-related situations.  As I sat very still in my office one morning, the door  closed, and my eyes gently shut, I repeated a phrase in preparation for a challenging meeting.  A few seconds later the door blew open abruptly and a student employee stumbled, nearly landing in my lap, in his attempt to deliver a set of text books.  He’d unlocked the door with the universal key, thinking the office was empty.  I repeated to him that it was alright, he couldn’t have known I was in there, etc., but he backed away, crimson-faced, stammering a litany of apologies, his hands bracing the door jam, until he evaporated down the hallway.

Anyway, Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love has been a heart-warming and delightful journey to read, but it has also gotten me thinking about what a dabbler I’ve been when it comes to yoga and meditation.  “Dabbler” is actually a generous term.  I’ve really been more a “drizzler.”  And you just can’t do that if you’re going to be serious about a practice to which you want to commit yourself.  The thing is — I just don’t think I’m there yet.   I must be more focused and determined if I’m gonna make this yoga and meditation thing happen.

While I’m getting there, though, I’ll offer a little verse that I hope conveys my very good intentions.

                              I Really, Really Tried.  Cross My Heart.

This morning I tried to meditate, but I simply couldn’t concentrate.

This practice I’d appreciate had I enough time to dedicate

and a brain that would cooperate so all my thoughts would evacuate

the gray matter they now dominate.

This stress I shall eliminate and courageously self-motivate.

I’ll begin again – it’s not too late

to attain a peaceful, Zen-ish state.

OK.  Maybe.

Cartoon of Stressed Out Woman

Here’s another perspective.  Genius musician Paul Simon has his own take on un-clouding the mind in his song, “Maybe I Think Too Much,” from his One Trick Pony Album:

They say that the left side of the brain controls the right

They say that the right side has to work hard all night

Maybe I think too much for my own good

Some people say so

Other people say no

The fact is

You don’t think as much as you could.

Does thinking cloud your mind?  Tell true.  And when it does, what do you do?  (Hey there’s another rhyme!)