The Smiling Project

It started out as pure vanity, so let’s get that confession out of the way first.

I would catch sight of myself in photos or in reflective surfaces walking down the street and think, “Wow, that’s a very frowny face on a lady who is generally really happy.” Photos taken when I wasn’t smiling showed distinct marionette lines pulling my mouth down. It’s not just that I didn’t feel pretty, it’s that I didn’t feel like my face reflected my inner state of being.

I thought of it first as a muscle-retraining effort and tried to remind myself to lift the corners of my mouth more often, to neutralize the frown and to hold my face in a more pleasant expression.

But who’s ever going to remember to do that, right? Then, somewhere along the way, I read Thich Nhat Hahn’s meditation, “Breathing out, I smile.” This man is pure medicine. Whenever I read his books I hear his beautiful, strong, calm and wise voice in my head. Once, during a particularly cranky and irritated week, I heard his voice say, “Breathing out, I smile.” And I tried it. The irritation went away almost immediately.

I found an entire chapter on smiling as a spiritual practice in one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and again, I could hear his voice in my head, so gentle, loving and persuasive. I thought, “I’m going to try this for real.”

I started in earnest maybe a year ago. I try to hold my face with my lips curled up as my neutral expression, and I swear it is changing the way my mind works. Something happens around my eyes — they literally soften in some way as the flesh of my cheeks moves up around them — and I don’t stay irritated for nearly as long as I used to when I get irritated.

In public, I walk around smiling and again, I swear that this functions as a mind-altering activity. Maybe it’s because my face is busy doing something that my critical mind gets distracted, or maybe there’s a chemical that gets released in the brain when we smile but I’m telling you, this is free drugs for the naturally bitchy.

I’m so talented in the art of self-and-other-directed criticism that I am actually able to smile at the same time as I have a bitter thought ( I know, those are mad skillz, baby), but I must honestly report to you that because of the smiling, those thoughts go away really fast and don’t leave much of an impression.

I still eagerly await and hope for extreme old age that will erase all social filters and allow me to speak exactly what’s on my mind, but until then, I am happy about the Smiling Project. It’s fun, easy, free and effective.

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh

Thanks, lovely teacher.

3 Replies to “The Smiling Project”

  1. We know that when we’re happy, we smile. Studies have shown that the reverse is also true: when we allow the full range of expressions on our faces, we are more able to feel the full range of emotion. (Unfortunately, one of these studies was specifically about Botox–that it actually inhibits, not just facial expressions, but the emotions that match. Of course, maybe we don’t want to experience the emotions that make us wrinkle our brows!)

    I have a naturally serious, possibly even frowny, face, despite being pretty happy and cheerful, and I bet you are right: smiling more would make me even cheerier. I think I will try TNH’s suggestions. He’s never steered me wrong yet.

  2. Scientists have found that when participants in their studies held pens in their mouths (thus activating the muscles involved in smiling), they evaluated funny video clips more positively than participants holding pens in their mouths differently so these muscles weren’t activated. None of the subjects knew that the pen-holding was meant to elicit smiling musculature.

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