Monday, April 23, 2012

The Power of a Smile

How often do we talk about smiling? Phrases such as “Turn that frown upside down” are cute ways of telling us that smiling is better than frowning. There is controversy over whether it takes more muscles to smile than frown, but everyone has their version, and many like to share it. And of course, there is the old adage that we can “fake it til we make it.” In other words, we can make ourselves happier just by smiling. We talk about it a lot, but do we ever actually think about the power that a simple smile holds?

When I was in band in high school, my parents (and other band parents) would always come up to me after concerts to tell me how serious I looked. As some people got to know me better over the years, they even went so far as to tell me that I looked downright dangerous. I always just laughed. How serious could I really look? Once in a yoga class, I was in reclining virasana, one of my favorite poses, and I was happy as a clam. The teacher came over to ask me if I was ok. Apparently I did not look happy as a clam. It continues, and one of my current teachers now just walks over and places her hands on my head and says, “relax your brow.”

My response to these situations has changed over the years. As a high school musician, I was confused. Did I really look that bad? The first time in yoga, I tried to be serious about not being so serious. Now I just laugh.

When I teach, I tend to teach hard poses in a similar way. I start at the beginning, move through the pose step-by-step, and then just as everyone looks like they are struggling as much as they can, my instruction is nearly always the same, “now smile.” I have never really thought much about why I do that, but as I am being reminded more and more by the same teacher how serious I am, I have started to ponder the power of the smile.

First, there is some, actually a lot, of truth to the “fake it til you make it” mentality. Simply smiling really does release endorphins, which help us feel happier. Over time, we really can become happier. That is a powerful benefit, but it is not the only one. Smiling, especially in the midst of being tense, releases that tension. A smile can snap us out of a different state simply by being different. Finally, and this might be the best lesson for me, it reminds us to take ourselves less seriously.

I deal with a lot of serious stuff every day. I work with kids who have been removed by Child Protective Services. But even if your day job does not involve CPS, we all feel the seriousness of the world. There are wars raging, people starving, homeless people on the street, and whatever else the media wants to bombard us with. One of the only ways to remove ourselves from that onslaught of seriousness and unhappiness, is to break the cycle. Breaking the cycle starts with a smile. It is the antidote, the way to snap ourselves out of the collective serious world.

This is not to say that those issues should not be addressed in a serious way. In many ways, I find it difficult to smile in the face of so much distress, but then I remember that it might be the key to actually bringing light to those situations. We can start to break their cycle with a wee smile.

Smiles help us relax. Those endorphins do more than just make us happier. They actually help put us back on the path to overcome the fight or flight response. A smile breaks the stress cycle. Once we are able to break that stress cycle, we can begin to see the world from a more holistic vision. Stress gives us a very narrow focus – either run away from danger or freeze in its face. But once we break that cycle, other options open. A smile is the first step.

When I look back at my confused reaction in high school I wonder if I could have had more fun and been less singularly focused, would I have been a better musician? Maybe I would have actually gotten into music school? But then I would not be on this path, and that definitely is not something to smile about. I am happy to use it as a reference, and now those memories simply bring a smile to my face.

Who knew that such a simple act could be so powerful?

How have smiles helped you break cycles in your life? When is your favorite time to remind yourself to smile?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 


  1. its good to try and have a small smile the whole practice. if the endorphins are being released properly it will be hard not to smile


  2. When I was in high school, I attended a leadership camp and one of the exercises we did was take turns sitting quietly and letting our faces settle into our "neutral face" - the way we looked when we weren't feeling anything in particular - just to know how we looked to other people. Apparently my "neutral face" is one of confusion, and knowing this helps me understand why people address me certain ways. I used to be frustrated that people seemed to be over-explaining things to me or seemed concerned I wasn't understanding, but now I know it's because I always have this furrowed brow. I also tend to look pissed off, so when I notice it, I try to actively relax my face and usually smiling does the trick. Smiling has the added benefit of reminding me there are things to smile about, and what they are!

    1. Amy, that's a really good thing to understand about ourselves. I know my facial expressions are interesting, but I have no idea how others interpret them. I think that would be an interesting thing to learn. And I love how you tie smiling into that experiment. Thank you so much!