Last week was a hot one. On Friday, I was out all day running errands, feeling pretty zapped by 4:30pm when I was driving home to finish my final and most tedious task: organizing my finances. I was consumed by an inner, muddled dialogue about how exhausted I was feeling, how much work I had ahead of me, and how expensive healthcare had become when I suddenly noticed a man outside my car waving at me with a glowing smile.
I didn’t know this man, and he didn’t know me. He was a landscaper it seemed, as he was using an enormous leaf-blower to clean my neighbor’s lawn, dripping sweat from head to toe as he went about his task. But his smile was so whole-hearted, so real, that I immediately reciprocated the biggest smile I could muster among my hurried thoughts.
As I drove forward, the man and my smile slowly faded away. But the side effects of my smile still lingered. I noticed myself take a big exhale. My thoughts had slowed. I felt a sense of relief and a cooling of my body. The key to thwarting my bad mood, it seems, was hiding quite literally, right under my nose.
When we’re happy, we tend to laugh and smile with ease. It turns out, interestingly, that the reverse is also true: smiling, even when it’s forced, can actually make us much happier.
When we smile, we send an impulse to our nervous system, causing it to release happy chemicals like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. These are the same chemicals we fill up on when we’re eating chocolate, basking in the sun, or getting a good night’s sleep. They not only improve our mood, but they physically release stress from our bodies. This explains my giant exhalation after my encounter with the smiling stranger.
In addition to feeling great on the inside, smiling is the universal language of kindness. It makes us more seem more likable and courteous to others, helps us build relationships, and spread joy.
So the next time you’re feeling anxious or sad, tell your brain you’re not going to let it win this time. Fake a smile, and let it guide you towards that joyful person you know you truly are. You have nothing to lose but your misery.