Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a great article, Can Smiling While Exercising Improve Performance?, by Gretchen Reynolds on the science of why false smiles activate fewer facial muscles than sincere ones. A study published in Psychology of Sport + Exercise among high-performance endurance athletes states that smiling while sweating makes efforts feel easier because genuine smiles active more facial muscles resulting in more relaxation. Forced smiles are fixed and unnatural making you feel more tense. Examining the facial patterns of Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan marathon runner who has come in first place in the London, Berlin and Chicago marathons support these research findings. As Kipchoge approaches the race’s end he exhibits 30-second bursts of smiles. And everyone knows that smiles are contagious which is what happens when the crowds of spectators see him crossing the finish line!
Often when we are going through medical challenges or difficult situations in our lives we can’t imagine a time when the pressure will end. Even when we want to smile, it seems ludicrous, almost dishonest. However, when you smile authentically, it immediately releases stress in the jaw and facial muscles. The term “lock jaw” refers to the way that animals and humans can clutch our jaws together in a vise-like grip. However, like most things in life, in order to experience the healing power of a genuine smile, first you have to “let go” and trust in order to relax. Engaging in a forced or fake smile will in fact, make you more tense.
How can you tell an authentic smile from a phony one?
The answer is surprising because it’s not what you expect. First, here’s a quick anatomy review: did you know that there are ten nerves and 43 muscles in your face? These muscles account for seven percent of the muscles in your entire body. These muscles enable you to make more then 1,000 facial expressions – even though everyone’s face is unique there are five universal facial expressions: anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, and joy.
Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, a prominent neurologist living in France in the 1860s, is the person who discovered the difference between a genuine smile and a phony smile. Dr. Duchenne was a Renaissance man who discovered muscular dystrophy and also appreciated art. Specifically, he wanted to use science to help the leading artists of his day depict more accurate facial expressions. So he hooked up electrodes to facial muscles to see how they were triggered. A photo captured each individual expression. You’ll never look at a smile the same way after I tell you the secret he discovered.
An authentic smile arises from the activation of the zygomatic cheek-raising muscle, which makes the sides of your mouth rise into the shape of a smile. But here’s the secret he uncovered: the orbicularis oculi muscles of the eyes are also activated when the smile is authentic. This wrinkling around the eyes is often called “Laugh lines” because of the connection. So when a person is only baring his or her teeth and having the sides of the mouth turn up in a smile, without activating the eyes, we instinctively sense that this is a forced or fake smile.
Which photo is different from the other two? You probably can identify the phony smile from 50 feet!
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh
These poetic words of Thich Nhat Hanh have been scientifically proven in what psychologists call the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, a powerful theory that shows how the simple act of smiling can improve wellbeing. You’ve surely heard the expression that “Laughter is contagious.” This is true because Mirror Neurons play a central role in imitation. Mirror neurons are activated when we perform an action or when we see someone else performing an action. We are wired to feel good when we smile and when we share the smiles of others. Mirror neurons are important conduits for empathy and recognizing emotions in other people. That’s how SMILING IS CONTAGIOUS TOO. So if you smile even when you are not happy, you can change your mood. Watch the Soaringwords’ Healing Power of Smiling video to learn what makes babies smile and how smiling can enhance your day.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
if you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.
David Wagoner, from Travelling Light: Collected Poems and New Poems, 1999.
Today it’s often easy to feel lost when the landscape is rife with 24/7 streams of bad news like storm clouds. In times like this, it’s wise to turn inward to regain a sense of stillness and balance. Nature has always been a rich repository of healing imagery to help us shift our thoughts and feelings to an inner state of quietude and calm. We make plans, and then life happens. Today I left my home at seven in the morning, schlepping three large tote bags brimming with a delicious home-made dinner to share with the New York Life team leads who champion monthly Soaringwords’ Volunteer for Good programs in the NYC and Jersey City offices. As I was leaving a morning meeting, someone announced that a pipe bomb exploded in Times Square. We all paused for a few moments of silence and then I had to decide to push onward twenty blocks towards my midtown office or to return home to stash the food into my refrigerator. Being a resilient New Yorker, I pushed on. Soaringwords’ office is at the WeWork building in Bryant Park, overlooking the skating rink, behind the New York Public Library, just a few blocks away from Port Authority. Because all the NYC subways were shut down, it took more than 35 minutes to get a taxicab. Once I got inside the taxi, the driver announced that he probably could not get me anywhere near the office since the roads were closed to traffic. I got out of the taxi and changed course. I walked to the nearest bus stop heading uptown and returned to my apartment.
Prepare your soil
In spite of fierce storms, trees stay grounded because their roots have had enough time to penetrate deeply into the soil. In times of turmoil, I find it helpful to dig deep into life-affirming routines. For me this means a daily practice starting with some imagery, stretching, and an early morning walk in nature, swimming six times a week, and getting extra rest to counter the impact of information-overload or stress. These are simply tried and true essential nourishing rituals that I know will sustain me during these calamitous times. When I forgo these simple rituals, my shoulders get tense, my lower back starts to throb, and I feel less centered. This is my body’s way to re-mind me to pay attention. What are the daily rituals that you can do to find balance, quiet and calm?
Today is the First Day to the Rest of Your Life
This was a popular poster and bumper-sticker in the 1970s. Like many sayings based on common sense, it’s true. Today is a wonderful opportunity for you to identify one or two easy-to-do actions that will help you un-plug to the outside noise allowing you to go within to connect with your inner wisdom.
A Forest is Comprised of More Than One Tree
When times feel difficult or overwhelming, it’s essential to reach out, like the branches on a tall Oak tree, rather than turn inward and isolate. I’ve noticed that when the going gets tough, people tend to isolate, myself included. Even though that’s the time I feel like shutting myself off from others, it’s the time that I need to connect. While it takes seconds to connect on social media, nothing replaces the immediacy and intimacy of gathering with other people face to face. Today it is essential to be part of communities where you can be yourself. One of my forests where I seek sanctuary happens to be in the observance of the Sabbath. Each Friday night as I light my Sabbath candles I relax knowing that my electronics will also be taking a break for the next 25 hours. For three hours on Saturday morning, I escape into hauntingly beautiful melodies of wordless prayers called niggun (melodies that are chanted or hummed). I also find comfort in the words of centuries-old prayers that give me strength. Your forest can be in other places that give you peace of mind and strength. Whether it’s a book group, a religious community, a dance class where you are part of a vibrant community, a twelve-step program, your local Y, or simply hanging out with other children, teens and families who are spending time in the hospital, I promise you that you will be better able to connection to yourself and to others when you do not isolate. In this way, you will feel like a tree deeply planted in the nourishing soil of life. Sending you strength and Soaringwords.
This morning’s Wall Street Journal featured a sensitive article A Blue Christmas: Dealing With Loss During the Holidays by Clare Ansberry with “food for thought” for those mourning the loss of loved ones and guidance for everyone who wants to say and do helpful things for people who are grieving but don’t exactly know how to do this gracefully. This year, the article truly resonates as I embrace many feelings remembering our family’s last Thanksgiving celebration, the final holiday we shared with my beloved dad, nine days before he died. For the past nine years, at every holiday celebration and family dinner I had the seat of honor next to my father. Dad’s right hand side of his body was paralyzed from five strokes. One of my duties was to lovingly prepare his plate of food (picking the perfect piece of turkey with crispy skin, the best sweet potatoes, and the corner piece of corn bread). I discreetly cut his food in the kitchen to maintain his dignity as he was able feed himself at the table.
The Empty Chair
This year, I was aware of the “presence of the absence” as Rabbe Nachman, a Hasidic master teacher (1772-1810) eloquently captures the ethereal landscape of loss in his seminal work, The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy. Many people I know leave an empty chair at the holiday table and invite people to share stories, favorite memories about the person who is physically no longer present. In her article, Clare Ansberry recounts that families don’t want loved ones to be forgotten so I was grateful when Aunt Margery said some beautiful words of tribute in honor of my dad immediately before the meal. Rarely at a loss for words, I was determined to get through the meal and quietly focused on eating my food slowly and with gratitude. One of the things I was most grateful for was the fact that other guests animatedly talked about their hobbies, funny holiday stories, trips and, of course food! I was grateful to listen to interesting conversation and be part of a cozy holiday meal.
Grief is not tidy and orderly.
I never know when I will experience a pang or a sobbing bout, or a wave of joyful, hilarious memories. The only constant variable is that there are no rules. Whether the loss was months or years ago, adults who lost a parent in childhood say it takes six years or more to move forward, according to a bereavement survey underwritten by the New York Life Foundation that supports Bereavement programs for grieving children. For most people surveyed, support falls off after about three months. I have been conducting my own research these past few weeks leading up to the holidays as my feelings of grief have swelled to the surface more than over the course of the past year. So when people ask me “How was your Thanksgiving?” or “How are you doing?” instead of defaulting with a gushing remote-control response of “Great, how was your holiday?” I tell them that it’s a tough time. The reactions are fascinating. Most people share a story about the loss of a loved one… or ask me if I’d like to receive a hug. (Of course I would). My authenticity is rewarding me with gratitude as these beautiful one-on-one encounters create powerful moments of connection.
During the course of his life Rebbe Nachman endured many tragedies and deaths in his family. One of his most inspiring quotations is: “Always remember joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest, it is vital.” One of the nicest traditions we’ve adopted over the past year is to share “Charlie-isms”- hilarious and inspiring stories of things my dad did throughout his life to keep the memories alive. Here’s my favorite Charlie-ism from Thanksgiving.
I grew up in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey. Dad worked six days a week. After work, he always made time to play catch or ride bicycles with my younger brother Gary and me. As the years progressed, we’d go around the block first in our strollers, then walking, on tricycles, and roller skates. When Gary was eight and I was ten, Dad took us on a top-secret outing that was to commence at midnight. He bundled us up. When he woke us up, we were parked at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. ALL the Thanksgiving Day floats and balloons were being blown up RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES. Dad, Gary and I were the ONLY people who were not part of the parade crew. It took Macy’s 25 years to replicate Charlie’s genius idea.
Making a Decision to Choose Life.
My grief helps me stay in touch with the feelings of isolation or sadness that most of the Soaringwords children and families experience 24/7 and for that I am grateful. My default philosophy is to always choose life and, in this way, temporary waves of grief serve to amplify the joy and blessings of each day when the feelings shift.
In the words of George Bernard Shaw,
This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn-out before you are thrown on the scrap-heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
This year, may all of your holidays be authentic.
Lisa Honig Buksbaum is the CEO & Founder, Soaringwords a global not-for-profit organization that inspires ill children and families to take active roles in self-healing. Since 2001, Soaringwords has inspired more than 500,000 people to pay-it-forward to inspire ill children and teens to “Never give up!”
This simple activity is considered one of the most powerful positive interventions by leading positive psychology scientists around the world. Creating a Gratitude Letter will have an immediate impact on enhancing your personal well-being AND the well-being of the person you are expressing feelings of gratitude towards.
Keep it simple. Just get started. Here’s a suggested opening you can use (or write your own words). Dear (Person’s name): I wanted to take a few minutes to thank you. It might be surprising to get a Gratitude Letter out of the blue but I wanted to tell you why I am grateful to you.
Then just list a couple of things for which you are grateful. Give specific examples if you can since this makes it more powerful.
Expand the joy.
If you want to get the MOST benefits from this positive exercise…. It’s even more powerful when the person writing the gratitude letter gets to read the letter to the person receiving the gratitude letter. If you can’t do this in person, perhaps you can read it to them over a video chat or the phone. Or you can mail the letter.
Here is an example that a Soaringwords supporter sent to us.
I know I don’t say this as much as I should, but I just wanted to take the time to thank you. When I was dealing with my chronic pain at its worst a year ago, I really felt like I could count on you. It didn’t matter that you didn’t always know what to say. The fact that you were trying and you were there for me — it meant everything to me. I remember on my birthday, you stopped by to give me a cupcake and a card. I have that card hanging up in my bedroom now, as you might have seen. It was a small touch that showed your endless compassion and empathy. I am so grateful for your friendship. Also, thanks for letting me text you whenever I wake up in the middle of the night from pain. I know you love your sleep! See, you make sacrifices for the people you love. That’s something I want to pay forward to you and other friends because you make me feel so loved. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
When children and teens are ill, they experience many different feelings that are hard to express. Digging Deep: A Journal for Young People Facing Health Challenges, is an exercise journal created by Rose Offner, MFA and Sheri Brisson, MA to empower children and teens with medical conditions to build resilience through their challenge. You can download the individual journaling worksheets here in English or Spanish. Subjects include: Circle of Support, Treatment and Hospitals, My Life, Moving On, Identity and Self-Esteem, Feeling Exploration.
Click here to download different theme pages and to start writing your unique journal.