Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year's Resolution: SMILE

My New Year’s resolution? Smile. Smile more. Smile more genuinely. Smile most of the time. Smile even if I am unhappy. Smile if I feel shitty.Just Smile. But here's the problem. I can’t smile right. My wife thinks my smile expresses more pain than joy. I am basically cheerfully-challenged. I sense her frustration. I sense it when I smile. It is a strained facial expression, awkwardly asymmetrical. It is like my left cheek and right cheek are in conflict. They wouldn’t work together.

A cheerful smile lifts both cheeks in unison (the muscles around the eyes also contract). A good smile therefore works both the cheeks and the eyes. But my dastardly cheeks are like two spoiled brats.  Most of time, either my right or left cheek bone is raised, thereby turning an inviting smile into an annoying sneer. At times, my crooked smile, albeit sincere, gives the impression that I am scheming something untoward against the cameraman. Below is a recent picture of how that “sneer” looks like.

So, I need to practise more on my smile and that is why smiling is my New Year’s resolution. Smile or smiling, even if it kills me, shall be the beaming display that I hang on my face for the new year. And here’s why.

Recently, I read a marvelous book about smiling. It’s entitled “Why Smile?” whose author has a PhD from Boston University and she is a Professor at Yale University. Her name is Marianne LaFrance. She knows her smiles and she encourages all of us to smile. According to her book, those who smile, and smile genuinely - such smile is known as a Duchenne smile (named after a French physiologist) - will experience both internal and external changes that are positive, encouraging, sometimes electrifying, uplifting and inspiring.

Here is the anatomy of a Duchenne smile in her own words, “When these muscles contract, the cheeks lift, the skin under the lower eyelids bunches, the eyes brighten, and the skin at the outer eye corners produces familiar crow’s-feet wrinkles. Duchenne called this muscles the “muscle of kindness”. Its anatomical name is the orbicularis oculi (muscles around the eyes). What most people think of as a great smile actually entails the action of two facial muscles: the zygomaticus major (cheek muscles) and the orbicularis oculi.” Below is the subtle differences between a social smile and a Duchenne smile (face on the right) as taken from her book at page 8.

Taking a page from the above, a less than Duchenne smile would involve the activation of just one of the cheek muscles to form a one-sided facial smile like mine (see above image of me for a squirming reminder). 

It is said that no one has to learn how to smile. Actually, that is not true. Babies have to learn how to smile. They mimic the adults and their faces undergo a process of trial and error to develop their own signature smile, unique to their faces. As they grow, they will adapt and adjust their smiles accordingly and the smiles that win permanent facial residency are those that elicit the heartiest response from people they encounter.

Of course, I have to have a reason to smile. And I don’t lack them. My family, my children, their health, my law career, and many other things are reasons enough. What I am saying is that I have reasons for me to stay more positive than negative. Sure, life is going to be unkind. We all know that. Some know it too well. The new year will have its challenges. And the challenges will stretch me to breaking point. I cannot guarantee a rose garden. I don’t have a pair of rose-tinted glasses either. Among the roses, there are thorns and some will breach the emotional skin and cut real deep and stay real long. But still, that which doesn’t kill me ought to make me not only stronger but more hopeful. And this hope ought to keep me more cheerful.

I think my problem is not that I have no or little reasons to smile. But the issue with me is that I need to be reminded that I have more reasons to smile than to frown. And there is no better way to remind me of that than to smile, even if that is the last thing on earth I want to do. I know this sounds crazy but there is a quaint phrase that goes like this, “The sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look around cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.” (William James, the father of American Psychology) Or this from the Vietnamese peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”  

Enough said? Well, here is the point and it comes as a caveat. The author of the book Why smile? wrote that 30 years of research has shown that “changing one’s facial expression do in fact have consequences for those who exhibit them.” But there are limitations. She went on to write, “…adopting a facial expression that is the opposite of one’s current feelings is difficult to pull off. A smile has some capacity to reduce sadness but it cannot completely turn it around.” The caveat is, “it cannot completely turn it around.” Well, at least not all the time. But a smile does have its uplifting properties.

I find that when I am feeling down, I react. I vent. I throw tantrums. I am vulnerable, temperamental. But at times, when I am alone, I would force out a smile. It is difficult no doubt. It is an uphill facial climb no less. But that is somehow the distraction I need to nudge me in the direction towards my emotional silver lining. It derails my southward path and gives me a ladder of reasons to climb my way out of the ditch of self-moping. Maybe it was the momentary silliness that I felt that lightened my mood. Or maybe that smile activated some muscles or nerves connected to the part of my emotional brain (amygdala) that triggered a neural network of pleasant or inspiring memories in another part of my brain (hippocampus) to wake me up from my slumber of gloom. Either ways, however yet unexplained, I felt better and that feeling of better-ness was the leverage I needed to move me forward with a more positive outlook.

So I say do not underestimate the power of a simple smile. The best makeup you can put on your face is in fact a smile. One’s beauty is incomplete without it. Research has shown that people who smile generate larger tips, are more contented, are more satisfied with their marriage, get more attention, win more customers’ favor, leave a better and lasting impression, secure that desired job, are more approachable, and are just more fun to be with. Try talking to a sourpuss or sour plum or bitter gourd and you'll know what I mean. As social psychologists Craig Smith and Heather Scott puts it, “the face has the only skeletal muscles of the body that are used, not to move ourselves, but to move others.” I guess the magic of an earnest smile is that it is disarming, welcoming, embracing, humbling, conciliative, affectionate, infectious, and even persuasive. People just naturally respond to a smile but they react to a scowl.

Of course, the research is not flawless and some results may be a case of over-attribution, turning correlation into causation. But still, a smile can’t possibly hurt – unless of course, your smile hides a sinister motive. Now that’s a whole different kettle of fish altogether.

Returning to my New Year’s resolution, if I do not have the resolve to smile more often than I frown in the new year, especially for the cameraman, then I don’t think I am up for more grandiose goals like losing weight (not that I am particularly fat), running a marathon or completing that master’s degree.

I want to keep my resolution simple and achievable. I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. I want to start the year by starting with myself. And what better way to do just that than by working on my smile and doing it right. I believe my smile is my internal thermostat and if I can keep it at the right level at most times, I will then be ready to take on bigger goals in the years to come. So, for the new year, when I don't feel like smiling, when times are tough and my emotions overwhelm, here is one of the reasons for me to really smile and to smile from ear to ear. I am sure you have yours too. Cheerz.

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