After I said a temporary goodbye to my husband before his surgery, I settled into the hospital’s family waiting room feeling glum and nervous. The day was dawning wet and gray, and the bleak vista out the windows mirrored my own feelings. I opened my prayer book, but was so nervous and fidgety I had a hard time concentrating on the words.
Instead, my eyes couldn’t help but travel to a woman in the corner. Instead of looking anxious like the rest of us in the waiting room, she was smiling, positively grinning. I had no idea why she seemed so impervious to the anxiety that covered everyone else in the waiting area like a thick blanket, but as the morning went on, I felt drawn to her. I wanted to find out what made her so happy. As the hours crawled by, it felt reassuring to see one woman smile.
Finally, overcome with curiosity, I introduced myself. We chatted for a bit, and the smiling woman told me the secret behind her delight: instead of needing life-saving surgery, her husband was undergoing an operation to donate a kidney to a good friend. Her husband was here for such a positive reason, not a medical emergency, and as we talked, I felt some of her happiness warm me as well.
Our faces are like public property; they give us the power to help or harm everyone we meet.
Our sages advise us to “receive everyone with a cheerful face” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15). The great 20th century Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, also known as the Chazon Ish, explained why: our inner feelings affect only us, but the countenance we show to the world affects the mood and happiness of those around us too. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter said that our faces – and our expressions – are like public property; they give us the power to help or harm everyone we meet.
That woman’s smile didn’t alter the situation my husband and I were in that day, but in some small measure, it helped me cope a little better.
After hours of waiting, I was finally permitted to see my husband. Thank God, he was doing well. Mindful of the effect being near a radiant smile just had on me, I tried to make sure I looked happy for him, as well. I’m not sure my husband noticed much in those hazy hours after surgery, but later on that night, I saw the power of smiling on those around me.
Stressed and short-tempered after my long day in the hospital, that night I snapped at my son. “Mommy!” he complained. “You’re being so grumpy tonight!” Instead of responding that it had been a stressful day, I bit back the words, and plastered a fake smile on my face. “Sorry,” I said, and repeated what I’d been saying with a smile. My son started at me for a second. I thought he was going say I looked crazy, suddenly grinning like that. Instead he shrugged and did what I’d asked, with the beginnings of a smile on his own lips.
That week while my husband recuperated in the hospital, whenever I was stressed and tired, I tried to smile. He was doing well, thank God, so it wasn’t hard to be happy. Sometimes it was just difficult to remind myself to look past the petty stress and irritations and reminding myself to smile helped me remember I had things to smile about.
Throughout that busy week, I thought my pasted smile must look bizarre, but again and again, I was met with smiles in return. And I found myself far more open to accepting help. Neighbors brought by meals. A friend came to town to visit and lend a hand. Friends and acquaintances rushed to offer support. My first reaction when offered help is to usually say no thanks and manage alone, but this week something felt different – I felt more connected with others, and appreciated all the help I received. Could my determination to smile be part of the reason for my relaxed, open disposition that difficult week?
Modern studies say yes. Instead of only being a reflection of the way we feel inside, smiling actually helps us to feel happier, calmer and more trusting. In one famous study, German researchers asked people to variously hold a pencil in their teeth (causing them to smile), or to hold a pencil in their lips (causing them to frown). Those holding the pencil in their teeth – forcing them to mimic a smile with their facial muscles – reported feeling significantly happier than those who held the pencil in their lips.
A later study at the University of Kansas took this a step further, measuring whether smiling benefited people in other ways too. Researchers there asked students to adopt one of three facial expressions: a neutral expression; the forced smile (this time the students gripped chopsticks in their teeth); and a more natural-seeming, full-faced smile. They were then examined while performing stressful tasks. While those who engaging in warmer, more natural smiles were the most relaxed, even students who adopted forced smiles experienced less stress than the neutral group.
“The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment,” concluded the study director. “Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!”
The Talmud says that the white of one’s teeth glimpsed in a smile is even more nourishing than the white of nourishing milk (Ketubos 111b). Milk strengthens our body; sharing the beauty of a smile can strengthen a person’s emotional well-being.
Of course there are times when smiling isn’t appropriate, when tears are necessary and natural. But smiling throughout my stressful week elevated the mood of those around me and bolstered my own happiness, enabling me to respond to challenges more easily. Smiling doesn’t fix every problem, but it can help give us the strength and human connectedness we need to cope.