Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about smiles. I miss smiles. The warmth of a genuine smile when you pass a neighbor on the street. The confident smile when you see a familiar worker behind the counter of a store you frequent. The hesitant smile of a stranger wanting you to stop and give directions. The ear-to-ear beaming of a true friend you have missed. Now, our smiles hide behind masks or are lost on 2×2 screens as we gather remotely. I know, you can tell a lot from someone’s eyes, the twinkle and crinkle of the skin in the corners suggesting a hidden grin down below, but it’s not the same.
And it’s not just seeing smiles that I miss. I miss giving them too. The way they disarm a total stranger, create an openness and invite conversation. In the before times, when I could enter the chemo suite and meet with patients in person, my smile was an introduction, able to communicate warmth, caring, and an invitation to share and be supported. Conveying all that on the phone takes longer. Although patients sometimes tell me they can hear my smile and are reassured by my warmth and laughter, it can take many calls over several weeks to build to what was often there in an instant with a smile.
In addition to enhancing communication, smiles confer a personal benefit too. I can’t help but feel good when I am smiling. It relaxes the face, the shoulders, the jaw. I’ve been known to clench my jaw while doing yoga, purse my lips while knitting, nibble on my cuticles while watching TV, but I can instantly feel the beneficial effects when I remind myself to smile.
The Feel Good Hormone
Of course, it’s not just that smiles feel good, but they are actually good for you. A genuine smile, like a hug or a laugh, can release the hormone oxytocin, which helps to turn down the stress hormones. That, in turn, helps to strengthen the immune system, something that we all need.
These days, with the pandemic stretching out indefinitely, reducing opportunities to hug, make eye contact and feel a human connection, not to mention the added stress of trying to get a vaccine, we need smiles all the more. It’s hard to beat the stress reducing, immune strengthening, mood boosting benefits of a smile. But it can be a challenge to find something to smile about. I don’t know why the Mona Lisa was smiling, but I seek out humor. I follow dogs on Instagram. And I read the cartoons first in any serious publication that has them. I tend towards comedies when searching for something to watch. When all else fails, I remind myself of the wisdom Aaron Burr kept sharing with Alexander Hamilton—at least, according Lin Manuel Miranda. “Talk less, smile more.” Thanks to pandemic isolation, I talk less than ever, but I can always smile more!
Just don’t get me started on hugs!