The Power of Smiling

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." ~Thich Nhat Hanh

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a simple question on Facebook: “What made you smile today?” The responses were lovely, and each one made ME smile. One person wrote, “The sunset made the sky look like a Maxfield Parish painting.” Another said, “Zip-lining with my three kids.” “Watching ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ with my son this morning,” said someone else. My favorite: “Restoring my Maw Maw’s swan planters.”

My own response: “Running into a student and getting a great big hug. Dinner with some girlfriends and being able to speak my mind freely. Kisses from the cat.”

This whole beautiful Facebook conversation got me thinking about the act of smiling and about how good it feels to pause and reflect on what made you smile today.  Psychological and neurological research shows that the very act of smiling creates physiological responses that make you healthier and happier. A 2012 article in Psychology Today summarized recent research on the physiological benefits of smiling. One study shows that when you smile, your body releases serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, all neurotransmitters that improve your sense of well-being, serve as natural anti-depressants, and help you cope with stress. Smiling is good for you. It's not a reflection of the good thing happening to you, but as Thich Naht Hanh suggests, it's the source of your good feelings.

I noticed a couple of things about people’s comments on what made them smile. Not one of them mentioned work—as in, that thing we do for pay. Instead people reported that their interactions with loved ones or with the natural world made them smile.

The second thing I realized is that it’s a rare day when there isn’t something to smile about in my life. Even in the darkest times, there are things to smile about. In 2013, my dad went into cardiac arrest. Though the EMTs were able to restart his heart, he never awoke from a coma. My family and I kept vigil in the cardiac intensive care unit for a week. Those were dark and difficult days. All of us were in shock, and we struggled to make the right end-of-life decisions for him and to support my mother. And yet, I look back at the journal I kept in those days, and I see that every day, there was something to smile about: the compassion the CICU nurses showed my mother, the stories visitors told about my father, watching old episodes of “Friends” with my nephew in the CICU waiting room at 2 am. Smiling helped us get through those bad days.  

A few months ago, I tried a twist on the gratitude journal. (If you’re not familiar with it, there is research that shows that consciously practicing gratitude can actually increase our self-reported happiness levels. One tool for cultivating gratitude is the gratitude journal in which we record the things we are grateful for each day.) Instead of a gratitude journal, I decided to try a “Joy Journal.”  I don’t do it every day, but most days, I stop at the end of the day to record at least one thing that gives me joy each day.

I guess you could call my Joy Journal a “Smile Journal” because everything in the journal made me smile at the time and makes me smile when I read about it months later. I have no way of measuring the physiological benefits my journal brings me, but I do know that when I’ve had a bad day, the act of recalling one or two things that gave me joy calms me down. Reading an entry or two from earlier days makes me smile again. So I can’t help but believe my Joy Journal is beneficial.  My friend’s Facebook post was kind of like a collective “Joy Journal” that brought a bit of joy to all of us who read it.

What about you: what makes you smile? How can you bring more smiles into your life?

What about you: what makes you smile? How can you bring more smiles into your life?