Psycho-Spiritual Refractions: The Grace of Smiling

By Fr. Hedwig Lewis SJ –

Smiling is a powerful non-verbal language. A smile represents something bigger than itself. It symbolizes goodwill, affection and openness towards others. A smile can cut through all barriers. It knows no age, race, culture, gender, colour. Regardless of your social status, wherever you are your smile will always be understood. Wearing a genuine and confident smile can allow you to boost the spirit of those around you, making them feel good, happy and loved,

Smiling is an effective medium of projecting loving positive energy with rippling effect. When you are in the presence of someone with high energy and an expressive smile, you cannot help but smile with them: “Smile, and the world smiles with you.” In his book “SMILE…” (2011) Ron Gutman describes how smiling sets up a “feedback loop” You smile. You look and feel good. Others see you smile. They mimic and smile. They look and feel good. Smiling is contagious.

Smiling instantly makes people seem more approachable, accessible. It establishes a rapport and initiates trust. It communicates your positive mindset – that you are not a threat, that you are available for help, that you are open to feedback. It is a way of communicating to others that that they are valued and worth the smile that you just gave them. In turn, it enhances other people’s perception of you; they see you as attractive, reliable, relaxed and sincere, and even treat you differently.

Smiling enables us to “stay connected” in a personal way. It is standard advice to company executives and employees to “Smile and Dial” – and to maintain a smile while speaking on the phone. Smiling makes us sound happy, warm, and friendly, which makes us feel calm and confident. Smiling may not always solve problems but often our attitude can triumph over many complications that crop up during interactions and negotiations,

Psychologists have written countless articles about the benefits of smiling. Smiling makes us feel good which also increases our flexibility during attention to a task and our ability to think more holistically. Neuroscientists have listed several health benefits attached to smiling: it boosts the immune system, increases positive energy, reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure.

Of course, all this has to do with genuine/natural smile, not fake/plastic smiles. Paul Ekman described eighteen types of smiles in his 1985 book, “Telling Lies”. People smile when they are frightened, are flirting, horrified, mortified, or embarrassed. People also smile when they are lying. Scientific and psychological researches have provided us tools to distinguish between genuine and fake smiles.

A genuine smile happens when your happy or positive feelings are received and recognized by your brain/ It instantly activates two muscle groups on your face: your cheeks, which pull your facial muscles back and curl your lips upwards, and your eye sockets, which squint the corners of your eyes and create those little smile wrinkles. This gesture, also known as “deep acting”, is difficult to force.

In a fake or a forced smile, like when you “say cheese” while posing for a photograph or merely being polite, only the mouth muscles shape the smile and the bottom teeth may be exposed. The cheek and eye socket muscles are not involved. Fake smiles are not as broad or last as long as genuine smiles. A fake smile is not necessarily bad or unbecoming. It could be a “social smile” or “surface acting”, where one is being polite and friendly. However, researchers warn that smiling to hide negative emotions will backfire because the negativity will rot your outlook from the inside, even though you look happier on the outside. When the face does not aid in expressing the emotion, the emotion seeks other channels to express itself through.

God has created us to stay happy. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.7). There is something sacred about a smile. It makes us human. It makes us real. It make us feel happy to be alive, to face the ups and down of our journey. A smile has the power to break down walls and thaw the iciest of hearts. Ii offers us the opportunity to see others as persons rather than objects. It is a gift of goodwill and hope to people aching under heavy burdens. It invites trust, communicates availability, accessibility, and touches souls.

“A glad heart makes a cheerful face” (Proverbs 15.13). If you develop the habit of smiling often, you will feel a lot better, be more optimistic and gain the cooperation of others.

Incidentally, October 6 was Happy “World Smile Day” – Did you smile?

Fr. Hedwig Lewis SJ is a prolific writer, and the author of the bestseller “Body Language, A Guide for Professionals”. hedwiglewis@gmail.comHis website is