I have a friend who is unselfconsciously smiling all the time. He is the type of guy who usually does what he wants, when he wants, and I admire that quality in him.
He can drink too much, which can cause him to be occasionally ornery. That being said, the sincerity of his smile is like a contagion of undiluted happiness that the world so desperately needs right now.
Recently, I was chilling with my friend Charlie and his extended family at his well-attended first birthday party in the park. I can happily report there was an abundance of smiles and cake everywhere.
When Charlie smiles, for that precise moment in time, all the questions in life, existential, biological or otherwise, are answered for me. I want to understand more about smiling and its effect on mental wellness and recovery from substance abuse.
Is simply smiling a clear path to wellness in our mind, spirit and, possibly, body? What is the psychology of smiling?
Firstly, all smiles are not created equal. In a broad sense, there are three types of smiles: a reward, affiliation and dominance.
Charlie’s smile is a reward smile. Born of positive feelings, a reward smile creates the conditions for happiness for the sender and receiver.
When a mom or dad interacts with their baby, a reward smile is the glue which bonds them together. In the baby’s soft, malleable brain, these are the experiences which, positive or negative, influence the little tike for life and his chances for success, whatever manifestation that may take, in life.
There are well-respected leaders in the field of substance addiction, such as, for example, Dr. Gabor Maté, who suggests these early experiences in life are, in fact, central causes of addiction and mental distress later in life.
From the perspective of mental pathologies and substance abuse, a smile does have a measurable curative effect. The three hormones released when smiling include dopamine, endorphins and serotonin: the so-called neurochemicals of happiness.
Alcohol and opiates produce surges of these same neurochemicals, which transmit messages to be happy between nerve cells in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for motor function, learning and addictive tendencies. When we are abusing drugs and alcohol, are we really, on a level, desperately lacking an authentic, validating and reassuring smile in our life, in the deepest sense?
The gold standard of smiles is the Duchenne Smile, named after French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne, who studied many different expressions of emotion, focusing on the smile of pure enjoyment. The Duchenne smile is an involuntary smile which includes the entire face with the mouth turning upward from the corners, the cheeks lifting and eye sockets crinkling and creating crow’s feet.
There is also some evidence we unconsciously mimic each other when smiling from a section in our brain called the cingulate cortex. If we unconsciously mimic each other when performing wide, full face smiles, maybe we can get through these divisive times of war and pandemics.
I know, for a few reasons, I don’t smile enough for the goodness of my body, mind and spirit’s total health. For now, I’ll smile when Charlie smiles and he will smile and, hopefully, everyone will be happy. Genuinely, meaningfully happy.
Robert Skender is a qathet region freelance writer and health commentator.
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‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort