Day 7: Smile Your Way to Kindness

Dear <<First Name>>

If you look at a statue or painting of the Buddha, you'll see he’s almost always portrayed with a smile on his face. He's not grinning — the Buddha is above all a person who is mindful and composed in relation to his emotions — but he has a gentle and compassionate smile.

And adopting a smile, even when we don’t feel like it, is something that can help us to be kinder, because a smile is a form of inner, as well as outer, communication.

I think pretty much everyone now knows that smiling affects our physiology and how we feel. One study, for example, got people to hold chopsticks in their teeth in a way that created an artificial smile. The participants didn’t actually realize that they were smiling, and yet their physiology changed. They were able to recover more quickly from stressful situations than non-smiling participants, and had lower heart rates. They were almost literally able to “grin and bear it.”

Similar studies have shown that people who are smiling, even in this artificial way and without knowing it, find funny cartoons funnier, experience more pleasure when looking at faces, even if the faces look unhappy, and have their mood boosted. The effects on mood are most pronounced with people who are self-conscious — which usually equates, in my experience, to being self-critical. Smiling changes the rate and depth of your breathing and the rate of your heartbeat, bringing those more into line with how your body behaves when you're happy. It also changes the temperature of blood flowing to the brain, which may be one of the ways it affects our emotions.

These effects are modest. If you are in a profound depression, or mourning the loss of a loved one, you're not going to "snap out of it" because of adopting a smile. But in more normal circumstances you can give your emotions a gentle nudge in the direction of happiness, confidence, and kindness, simply by smiling.

One thing I’ve noticed about smiling is that it helps me to convey a sense of kindness to any part of my experience that I bring my attention to. When I smile as I pay attention to a part of my body that’s hurting, or to a painful feeling, it’s as if I’m sending a signal saying “It’s OK. Everything’s OK. Sure, you're in pain, but we can handle this.” Smiling allows us to communicate reassurance to ourselves. This creates a very different dynamic to when we're in physical or emotional pain and we're upset and wish to escape the discomfort. That rejection of our experience simply causes more pain. So smiling conveys confidence, and confidence is, as I pointed out a few days ago, related to our ability to have goodwill toward others. When we lack confidence we tend to assume that we can’t have an effect, or only have a negative effect, on others. It takes confidence to think that our kindness matters — that we matter.

When I smile, not only do I feel that my heart softens, but everything in the world around me seems to soften as well, including other people. Smiling conveys benevolence. Research shows that when we smile, people judge us less harshly; smiling helps others to feel more benevolent. And it certainly helps us to feel more benevolent as well. The Buddha's smile shows not just happiness, but love and compassion for all beings. When you smile as you wish another person well, you’ll feel more kindness toward them.

One lovely thing about smiling in meditation is that it can spark off a feedback loop where smiling makes you happier and being happier makes you smile. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

So smiling is an easy thing to do, it’s effective, and it’s free. That's something to smile about.

With metta (lovingkindness),

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Wildmind's Meditation Newsletter November 2017: Mindfulness: Freedom From, Freedom To
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Wildmind's October 2017 Meditation Newsletter
Wildmind's Meditation Newsletter September 2017: Stepping Into An "Enemy's” Shoes
Wildmind's September 2017 Meditation Newsletter: The Body-Wide Wave
Wildmind's August 2017 Meditation Newsletter: The Power of Gratitude
Wildmind's Meditation Newsletter August 2017: The Mind Knows its Own Way Home
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