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.



3 thoughts on “The Shadow of Your Smile – Part 1”

  1. That was a fabulous article Sheila! I’ve noticed throughout my life how people react and the best thing is I LOVE to smile – it’s so easy. Miss you!

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