Friday, October 15, 2010


I have been reading an intriguing book about emotions (Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner). One thing I've learned is that facial expressions, those gauges of our emotions, can be voluntary and involuntary. Some, for example, like raised eyebrows associated with empathy, cannot easily be replicated consciously, as they appear to stem involuntarily from our autonomic nervous system (the one that regulates things like breathing, so we don't have to worry about that all the time). This is really startling to me. I thought we all have nonstop control of our facial expressions.

Whether they're voluntary or involuntary, facial expressions are critical for getting along well with other tribe members. We need to be able to send the right signals all the time, since most of us live around others and need to let them know if we are going to be nice and hug them or be mean and squish them.

This book triggered thoughts about smiling. A pouty little thing as a child, I show up in family portraits with big brown eyes and a pooched out lower lip. I'm told that trips to the photographer's studio were not that fun when I was around. That's interesting to me now, since I love smiling!

I smile a lot. I smile while I'm driving, while I'm at the grocery store, while I'm reading, while I'm cooking. I even smile when I'm all by myself walking through a parking lot. I love having eye contact and smiling at elders (particularly women) when I'm shopping. If I think they're okay with it, I'll add a "Good morning" or "Lovely day, isn't it?" to the smile. I get much gratification from their responses, which are typically edged with a bit of surprise.

I like smiling in traffic, as most people are in pretty foul spirits then. I like letting someone into a line of traffic and smiling at the same time. A double surprise, I'm thinking.

When I read good poetry, especially that of Mary Oliver, I often smile. Her poem about a duck landing on a goose and a seagull scratching his belly in flight makes me grin. She has the right attitude, I think, about observing nature: there's much magic out there and a good portion of it is comedic.

My mom is a smiler. When I sit with her at lunch each week, in the cafeteria of a hospital where she volunteers, I delight at the way she responds to those walking by our booth. She makes eye contact, smiles big, and greets them, if she thinks that's a good idea. The administrator at another facility where she volunteers says she's the most congenial elder he's ever met; he loves the way she smiles so easily. Guess I learned my smiling from her.

I have used smiles to turn potentially contentious situations into warm fuzzy moments. At concerts of the band that my daughter and I follow around (Ozomatli), we plant ourselves strategically at the edge of the stage, so we are just feet from the musicians. This means that we are often shoved and crushed from behind by frenzied fans. One thing I've learned to do is to turn a potential adversary into a pal, using a smile and some questions to do so.

For example, two years ago a tall, beautiful woman was pressing up behind me at a concert in Seattle and the show hadn't even started yet. I didn't like the way she was encroaching in the modest space my daughter and I had staked out. Instead of responding with dirty looks and an assertive stance, I turned around, smiled, and started talking to her. I asked her where she was from (Wisconsin!), how often she'd seen the band, and so on.

That was a smart move. Not only did she refrain from crowding our space during the concert, she also helped deflect those pushy folks behind her so they didn't bother us. A year later I had a chance to smile and befriend her again, as she had come from Wisconsin to Seattle for another Ozomatli concert. We chatted and agreed to meet "same time next year." An easy, no-cost tool, that smile, turning potential nastiness into camadarie.

When I think about my facial expressions, the voluntary ones I have control over, I like to focus on smiles. I like looking for some fine, sometimes unexpected, opportunities to move my face's muscles cheerily and maybe, just maybe, make a new friend. I agree with author Keltner that, because of our ability to voluntarily do things like smile, we really are born to be good.

1 comment:

  1. Susan, I love your Smilin article! You may recall my business card has a "Smile" quote on the back, which will be on there 50 years in May of 2011. I learned this from a parent as well, but in my case from my Dad, who had the same quote on the back of his business card for 25 years. I will scan and E-mail the quote to you.