Thursday, April 4, 2013

When you're smiling...

And now for something completely different. My last few posts have been a little on the dark side. Indeed, that was the title of one of them, and “dark” was also in the title of another. So what can I talk about today that is a little lighter and brighter?

Smiling. That’s what I will talk about. It’s funny how in human beings, the upturning of the corners of the mouth, and perhaps even opening the mouth and showing the teeth, is seen as a sign of friendship and happiness. In chimps it seems to be more a sign of fear or anxiety. But then, we, too, have a nervous or embarrassed smile. Smiles, even in humans, serve more than one purpose. We smile when we are relaxed and happy. Perhaps we smile when we are nervous or anxious to create a state of relaxation and happiness. This would be a kind of bio-feedback, in which our outward action has an impact on our emotional state, rather than simply expressing it. I have tried that, sometimes, when I have been feeling a bit low: make the facial expression of a smile, which my body associates with happiness, joy and pleasure, and perhaps my emotions will respond. And it works… kind of… a little bit… sometimes. It doesn’t hurt, anyway. It’s good to keep the smile muscles exercised. I have seen people who seem to have lost the capacity to smile. I’m sure, with lack of exercise, those muscles become as weak as any other.

Smiles are also astonishingly contagious. It is difficult not to smile, when someone smiles at you. Perhaps this is just politeness, but I like to think not. I think the other person’s smile triggers, in a small way in us, the feelings that smiling usually expresses. In this case another person’s facial expression is influencing my emotional state. Perhaps this also tells us something about the evolution of the smile in human beings. If, in chimpanzees, it expresses anxiety, perhaps it is not a huge step from there for it to express appeasement in the presence of a potential threat, i.e., the other person. The other person responds in kind, and so each realises that the other is also anxious; perhaps an important step towards d├ętente.

Perhaps this is also why we often avoid another person’s gaze as we are walking down the street. Eye contact can be threatening, in itself. But seeing another person’s smile would disarm us in a way that we would rather avoid. Heaven forbid that we should see our bitter enemy smile at us! How could we shoot them if they did?

Are there some cultures in which smiling is more prevalent than in others? There are almost certainly cultural differences. And it is even possible to misunderstand a smile within our own culture. We might, for example, mistake an embarrassed smile for a smile expressing pleasure or happiness. In some cultures, smiling may be linked more closely to embarrassment than to happiness. We might involuntarily smile or laugh in the presence of someone else’s misfortune, and they might think that we are smiling or laughing at their misfortune. But really we are only expressing our own discomfort.

Yet there are few things more likely to make me smile (and I smile even thinking about it) than a broad, open smile on the face of another, expressing joy, happiness and pleasure.

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