Just about ten years ago, as I turned fifty, I noticed people — my coworkers, the university students I teach, and friends — kept asking: Are you tired? Are you sick? Is something wrong? The answer to each one was No, but my face, after 25 years or so of dependability, had given in to gravity. Apparently when I was relaxed and quiet, I looked angry or tired. So, until I was ready for a face-lift, I started to smile.
I smiled everywhere, not for any reason (except vanity), just smiled: at the grocery store, in the college hallways, in my car. Smiling soon became a habit, and people started noticing. A friend asked, “What’s the joke?” and I answered honestly, “Cheap face lift.” A stranger passed me in the hall and said, “You are so happy.” I just broadened my smile, nodded, and kept walking.
I believe that you become what you do. I can recall the exact moment I “became” an artist. I was in my late-thirties and had been “doing” art — making it, teaching about it, writing about it, and thinking about it — for nearly twenty years. Art was my undergraduate and graduate school major, and it had been my occupation and preoccupation for a long, long time. But one day in 1983, I knew that I was an artist, much in the way people feel when they give themselves over to religious belief. From that moment on, everything I did would be filtered through what I did, art.
If that is true — that one becomes what one does — it leads me to believe that smiling can make one happy. We all know the difference between a fake smile — that open-mouthed expression we hold for the camera saying “take the picture, take the picture” — and a true one. People whose job is to “read” facial expressions — to select juries or to question crime suspects — know this, and they have identified the muscles that reveal true joy. These muscles are not around the mouth, as you might expect, but in the upper cheek, around the nose and eyes. When these muscles contract, the brain releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals, and you feel happy.
So in order to feel happy, might we create this reaction simply by activating our smile muscles? I believe this is true.
All you have to do is make this sound: EEEEE. Try it: EEEEE. If you’d rather be silent (and who wouldn’t?), you can get the same result by holding a pencil sideways between your teeth. I keep a designated pen in my car so that I can practice whenever I think about it. Even when smiling is impossible (post 9/11, for example), you can at least trigger the positive brain-juices and feel, if not happy, then at least better. My smile is a powerful thing; it has made me happier. And it is contagious.
Try it. It can’t hurt.
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