Look at a statue or painting of the Buddha. You’ll usually find that he’s smiling. And one thing that can help us find a friendly attitude is adopting a smile, even when we don’t feel like it.
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 know 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 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 to being self-critical.
One thing I’ve noticed that smiling does for me is to convey a sense of kindness to any part of my experience that I happen to be focusing on. When I smile as I pay attention to my body, or part of my body — especially to a part of my body that’s tense or in pain — or to a feeling of discomfort, it’s as if I’m sending a signal saying “It’s OK. Everything’s OK. Sure, there’s pain, but we can do this.” Smiling allows us to communicate reassurance to ourselves.
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 on others, or even that we can only have a negative effect on others. It takes confidence to think that our kindness matters.
When I smile, I feel that my heart softens. In fact everything in the world around me seems to soften. 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, as he smiles in those statues, is showing not just happiness, but benevolent compassion and love 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 seems like something to smile about!