What’s In a Smile?

We are called the Smiling Science Alliance.  There are a bunch of pictures on the site with a peaceful statue (most likely Buddha, or a version of what Westerners call “The Buddha”) either slightly grinning or full-on laughing…but what really does smiling mean?  Do you always have to be happy to be smiling?

Research tells us that smiling has an involuntary, physiological effect on the biological processes of the body.  Endorphins are released into your bloodstream from the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus..and even if you’re faking a smile, stimulating those muscles in your face actually tricks your body into releasing these feel-good biochemicals.  What a strange and wonderful way to give yourself a shot of biological “chocolate” when you’re feeling less than happy, right?  For more information on the physiology of smiling, read this interesting article.

Why is the Buddha smiling, though?  There’s lots of theories about this, and I like to consult the experts on stuff like this…here are some thoughts that I’ve revised into secular versions of teachings from the Buddha and classic Buddhist tenets:

A smile often indicates and invokes authenticity. So, any smiling facial expression can reflect how  a person actually feels….happiness!

Smiling can indicate non-attachment expressed by someone grounded in a mindful life. So if sadness arises, this person definitely feels it, expresses it in an appropriate and harmless way, and let’s it go.  There is rarely dwelling in the sadness of the past, but more reminiscing of good memories, and a true appreciation of the present.

The mindful smiler may feel the true intention to engage in, recognize, and then let go of suffering. So, while painful events like the death of a dear friend bring momentary pain, one learns not to be stuck in suffering. No anger, greed, or delusion. Just being free of those heavy feelings.

The mindful smiler practices the cultivation of joy and peace. The mind that is free of attachments can focus on anything. Thus we can choose to appreciate beautiful things, such as a sunrise, the smile of a friend, or a breath of fresh air.

The mindful smiler practices compassion. Although we recognize there is always suffering present in life, the moment we truly forget suffering, we can burst out laughing. There is so much to be joyful about, but we also want to hold awareness of suffering. So the smile on the mindful individual – though unlimited – is often small.

Sometimes, with all that’s going on in the world and at work, it’s hard to smile.  If you have the intention to carry a small smile, during some portions of your day, you may be surprised at the reaction, both internally and externally.  Try it.  For your health…to cultivate compassion and authenticity….to exhibit your humanity…to welcome a new friend into your world…to envelope an old friend into the fondness you feel for them…to comfort…to validate…to sooth.  A smile can mean so much.  I invite you to take a big chunk of biochemical chocolate, and smile at someone today.