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The Power of a Smile


Proverbs 15:13 A cheerful heart brings a smile to your face; a sad heart makes it hard to get through the day.

Proverbs 15:30 Smiling faces make you happy, and good news makes you feel better.

Paramahansa Yogananda said that the average person is familiar with four states of mind: when a desire is fulfilled, we are happy. When a desire is denied, we are unhappy. When we are neither happy nor unhappy, we are bored. But when we can be calm, and rise above pleasure, pain, boredom, and even beyond peace, there is bliss – an ever-renewing joy that bubbles forth from the presence of God. This is the source of our most heartfelt smiles.

We’ve all experienced something like this: we wake up and the alarm didn’t go off. So we are harried and out of sorts – late for work, or just late getting the day started. The pants or blouse we really wanted to wear is filthy and still in the dirty laundry pile. We burned the toast, the coffeepot broke, and we forgot to get gas in the car last night and now we must stop and be even later. Then we get to where we are going, and we are greeted with a warm, friendly, sincere smile. Suddenly the dark cloud that we were walking under starts to dissipate, and we find that we can’t help but smile back. Gradually, our irritation slips away, and we are left feeling pretty darn good despite how the day began. I think I just described my Sunday mornings.

Of any area of study that scientists have pursued I think smiling must be one of the most researched subjects. Researchers have discovered many characteristics and benefits from the power of a smile. For one, that we are familiar with, studies prove that smiles are contagious and tend to multiply.

I have a close friend from high school days, Dan Mansergh, who is dear to me. We communicate through email, and just two days ago he wrote this: “I just got back from the post office and Safeway. I also decided to pick up a veggie pizza at Papa Murphy's that will last me about four days. When I entered the building, the girl at the counter was by herself but all smiles and giggles. I told her, "You seem cheerful!" She replied, "It doesn't do to be sad or unhappy all the time." I responded, "That's true, and I have to say your smile and attitude is contagious." She really seemed to appreciate my remark, and we were both left with elevated levels of happiness as we said our goodbyes. When I got home, I checked my email only to find you were going to do a talk on that very subject.”

Sometimes I have to remind myself, “Life is good, Patrick. Tell your face! Snap out of it! We’re having a good time here. Yeah?”

Although we have compassion for the distressed and injured and reach out to them, we prefer to allow negative glum people to enjoy their state in solitude. Sadly, we all know souls who choose misery: they want to complain and whine about nearly anything and everything. Any grievance that enters their mind needs to be verbalized; every disagreement with the world or people has to be mentioned; every flaw must be pointed out, and everything is viewed in a negative light.

Although these people think they are educating us, they are actually alienating us. If we spend too much time in their presence, our smile starts to feel incongruous, and we let it slip away and soon take on the knitted brows and exasperated demeanor of our company.

As we carry our smile on through the day, we find that other people see us and start smiling back. We don’t really know why, but we feel like the world is an ok place, filled with nice people.

The lesson: Smile, and the world smiles with you; complain, criticize, and gripe, and you bellyache alone. Even though a study shows that only half the people you smile at will smile back, at least when you smile, half the world smiles with you. We can always pray for the other half, those grumplebumps.

It is not surprising that studies have found that people are more willing to engage socially with others who are smiling. Across cultures, a smile is an inviting facial expression that tells people you are willing to talk and interact with them. (Dog wags tail)

This is the reason I am so interested in making our experience in church positive, loving, and uplifting. My belief is that by coming here, we can lift each other up; we can empower each other to face the week with renewed energy and the love of God in our hearts.

A smile is a gift to our self and others. There is a poem that I discovered many years ago on the internet entitled “A Smile”. I have used it in past talks and it has affected my thinking. You will be surprised to learn that it was actually written by a gentleman who attends our church, Bruce Bertram.

A Smile

Bruce Bertram May 1968, Viet Nam

A smile costs nothing but gives much

It takes but a moment, and the memory

of it usually lasts forever.

None are so rich that can get along without it –

and none are so poor

but can be made rich by it.

It enriches those who receive

without making poor those who give.

It creates sunshine in the home,

fosters goodwill in business,

and is the antidote for trouble.

And yet it cannot be begged, borrowed, or stolen

for it is of no value unless it is freely given away.

Some people are too busy to give you a smile;

Give them one of yours.

For the good Lord knows

that no one needs a smile so badly

as he or she who has no more smiles to give.

One translation renders Ephesians 6:7 this way: "And work with a smile on your face, always keeping in mind that no matter who happens to be giving the orders, you're really serving God."

I like to think that God often expresses into Creation as a smile. So if I see someone that is frowning and looking irritable, I know that I am seeing the human side of that person. My challenge is to see past what I perceive at the moment and know that Spirit is trying to burst through the walls of ego and shine into Creation.

I can feel it when I am out of sorts. When I am irritable, and my ego is throwing all sorts of obstacles onto my path, it just requires a small crack in my crabby armor to have the light of Christ enter my heart. It can be something as simple as hearing a happy song, or seeing children play, or having Mary smile at me. That’s often all it takes for my spirit to lighten, and I begin to smile again.

Studies have shown that smiling can lengthen our lives, and people perceive smiling people as more capable, confident, trustworthy, intelligent, and attractive. And smiling begins early in our lives. Doctors’ use of 3D ultrasounds show that babies smile in the womb and newborns will often smile in their sleep. Blind babies smile at the sound of a human voice. Children smile more than 400 times a day. It’s no wonder we like being around them. By the time we are adults our smile-rate has decreased to around 20 times a day.

Smiles are healing and can even make our immune systems stronger by helping to produce more white blood cells to help fight illnesses. One study found that hospitalized children who were visited by story-tellers and puppeteers who made them smile and laugh had higher white blood cell counts than those children who weren’t visited by such people.

Smiling activates neural messages to the brain that benefits our health and happiness. Every time we smile, it is like our brain is throwing a feel-good party. Neuropeptides, Dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin -- are released into the brain when we smile, and the results are a more relaxed body and lower blood pressure. Serotonin elevates our moods. Endorphins help relieve pain and reduce Cortisol levels, resulting in lower stress and anxiety.

Smiling stimulates our brains more than chocolate. From a chemical perspective, one smile stimulates the human brain more than 2000 bars of chocolate. It makes me smile just knowing how many calories I can avoid!

The interesting thing here is that even if we fake a smile we experience the same benefits. The brain doesn’t know the difference; it interprets the position of the facial muscles in the same way. This is called the facial feedback hypothesis. The more we stimulate our brain to release these chemicals the more often we feel happier and relaxed. In a sense, we can allow our smiles to become our own built-in pharmacy. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

[Having said all of this, I also acknowledge that for those who have been diagnosed as clinically depressed, their experiences will be much different than those who are not severely depressed.]

Smiling can actually help us stretch outside our comfort zone. Our natural tendency is to stay with the familiar, but smiling decreases this need. A study found that smiling can make us more comfortable in situations where we would otherwise feel awkward. So rather than entering a room full of strangers furtively, we enter with a smile on our face. As the study showed, half the people will smile back at us, and we will be are drawn to them for social interaction.

If we’re in a position of power, or want to be, smiling may be the key to our success. A group of researchers from The University of Montpellier discovered that smiling is a more effective leadership technique than having management experience.

There are occasions when we smile both because it’s polite and so that we can avoid feeling bad afterwards. (Study 1997). I know that some people could care less, but others, myself included, feel badly if we don’t acknowledge -- even trivial things – with a smile. Someone comes up to me excited because they found the matching sock they had been missing. Really, there is not much to smile about, but I am ready with a smile and a “Good for you!”

One study revealed that by looking at yearbook pictures they could predict later life successes. A broad beaming smile had a correlation with of long life and a happy marriage. Of course, some of us were late-bloomers in the smile department, and others were shy around picture day. According to my Senior Year picture I should have died alone … long ago.

One smile study showed that when we see a smiling face the portion of our brain that registers sensory reward is activated. This means that when someone smiles at us, we feel like we have been given a gift.

And truly, we have been, and it induces us to repay the favor. So when we share our smiles with people we are creating a mutual connection where each of us appears more attractive and socially inviting. We are bolstering each other’s immune systems; we are reducing each other’s pain, stress, and blood pressure. By sharing smiles, we are increasing our mutual comfort, our chances of living longer, and our overall health. So I say “Thank you” to all of you who have ever smiled at me because you’ve made me healthier!

We cannot control the challenges that we encounter, but we can control how we respond to them. Some challenges are better met with solemnity and sorrow. But the vast majority of our encounters with life, including the disappointments, changes, and confusions we experience might be better served by keeping a giggle in our hearts and souls. To laugh at our mistakes is far healthier than beating ourselves up. Listen to that Patrick.

I have really been enjoying all the Marvel and DC movies that depict the superheroes I read in comic books when I was a kid. But researcher Ron Gutman says, “Whenever you want to tap into a superpower that can make you and everyone around you feel better, smile.” I don’t know about you, but I think that is better than flying or running or swimming real fast, and we each have that power at our disposal right now.

One of my personal goals is to be a smile mogul, a smile tycoon and philanthropist. I may not be able to give away millions of dollars, but I can give away millions of smiles. Why not choose to be so filled with the bliss of God that we experience unlimited joy -- plenty for ourselves and plenty to share?

This week try this: Upon rising, before you go to sleep, and one other time of your choosing, grin for 30 seconds – a big beaming toothy grin. Even in the dark so no one else can see. Recharge that superpower. Do it every day and see how you feel at the end of the week. Make it a habit to experience the power of a smile.

My prayer for all of us is to be more open and willing to allow the joy and love within to express through our faces and to share it with others. In the words of Mother Teresa, “I’ll never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish.”

I will finish with Yogananda saying: “Let my soul smile through my heart and my heart smile through my eyes, that I may scatter rich smiles in sad hearts.”


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