World Smile Day: The Fourth of October 2013

A smile is probably the most universally recognised of all forms of non-verbal communication. That was the experience of Dean Karnazes the amazing distance runner who was the first person in the world to achieve the remarkable feat of running fifty marathons in fifty days. During his round-the-world travels he came across many remote people speaking a variety of vastly different dialects and languages. But despite their cultural difference, he found that they all recognised that when he smiled he was signalling that he came as their friend and not their adversary. As he later recorded in his book the Ultramarathon Man, “a smile seems to cut right through the divergence and unite us all.” When we smile everything seems to be more amusing. This is in accord with the theories of William James, the nineteenth century psychologist, who advanced the theory that the physiological changes which take place in our bodies in response to alterations in our emotional state are the cause, rather than the result of those changes. We feel fear, not because we’re approached by a hooligan with a knife, but because our muscles tense and our pulse races. This counter intuitive theory has recently been confirmed by Fritz Strack, a psychologist at the University of Wurzburg, Germany. He asked two groups of people to study a series of cartoons and then judge how funny they found them to be. The first set of volunteers was set the task of holding a pencil between their teeth without letting it touch their lips. This forced them to smile. The other group held the pencil in their lips not using their teeth: which forced them to frown. The results confirmed that those who were encouraged to smile felt happier, and found the cartoons more amusing, than those who were forced to frown. A similar experiment was carried out at Lawrence University in Detroit, USA, where a group of 160 men and women were shown a disgusting video. When the film was over, it was found those who took the chance of smiling while they watched the film, thereby choosing to treat it in a light hearted manner, were less noticeably less distressed by its content.

This gives us an easy way of handling our blue moments, a simple coping strategy which was employed by an office employee who always turned up to work in a jovial mood when every one else seemed glum and half asleep. When asked for her secret, she said: ‘Every morning when I get up I press the happiness button.’ She realised that, like everyone else, she had a choice. Either she faced the day with a smile or with a disgruntled scowl. Since we are group animals, this has a knock of effect. When we smile we evoke a smile in others, and that quickly reduces stress levels and generates a happier working environment. Smiling has been rightly described as the shortest distance between two people. Every time we greet the world with a smile we spread the medicine of happiness, especially on those occasions when the grin turns into a outright guffaw. Better a belly laugh than a constant belly ache. This is a practice we should of course follow every day of the year, and not just on World Smile Day, the occasion dedicated as a day of universal mirth in 1963 by Harvey Ball, the commercial artist from Massachusetts who invented the Smiley Face which is now “the most recognized symbol of good will and good cheer in the planet.” Every day of the year we should set out to spread the medicine of happiness by greeting the world with a cheerful grin. Smiling is a gift which costs us nothing; a present we can give to total strangers whatever their language. Smile and the world smiles with you, weep and you weep alone.

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