The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Can Smiling Make Us Happy?

How facial expressions influence our moods

Go ahead, twitch a few facial muscles. When it comes to mood altering magic, it turns out that smiling really does make a difference. Not just to others, but to ourselves as well.

Psychologists experimenting with what has come to be known as embodied cognition have long known that facial gestures, in addition to reflecting, can actually influence and alter emotional states.

Feeling down? Stick a pencil in your mouth. But be careful where you place it. Hold it between your lips and you’ll be flexing frown muscles—and your resulting mood will only darken. If, on the other hand, you bite down on it with your teeth, you’ll be giving your smile muscles a gentle work out—and will be feeling better in practically no time.

Don’t believe me? Ask Fritz Strack, the German researcher who conducted a series of such experiments some 20 years ago.

I myself was inclined toward disbelief—until I was required to duplicate the experiment as a condition of employment.

Back when I was trying to break into the field of professional animal training, I landed a job at an oceanarium. I had visions of myself frolicking with Flipper to earn my pay, but hadn’t quite realized what starting at the bottom actually meant. I was handed a broom and a dust pan and instructed to pick up trash left behind by tourists at show stadium pools.

Hardly a job to write home about. But that, as they say, is show biz.

In fact, my new employer informed me, as stage hands Flipper and I had quite a lot in common. If either of us stopped smiling, we’d be keeping each other company in the unemployment line. Paying customers wanted smiling dolphins and smiling people. My mood didn’t matter; the image I projected did.

What, I was asked, did I think of show business now? I figured there was really only one right answer to that question: I smiled.

At first, it was easy. New job. Working outdoors. Rubbing shoulders, so to speak, with Flipper himself. Flipper was smiling. It was just a matter of time before my true dolphin training potential was discovered. I was on my way. I was happy. I smiled, no problem.

Then summer came. It was hot. Winter came. It was raining. Somehow, my true dolphin training potential was going unrecognized. I was still picking up trash. My paychecks weren’t great. I didn’t always feel like smiling. But there were bills to pay, and I was in show business, so I swept and I smiled—and guess what?

I noticed something strange.

A pattern emerged. I’d come to work stressed out and resentful. I’d reach for my stage props—broom and dust pan—still resentful. I’d plaster a smile across my face, I’d make my rounds. I’d smile and nod and greet people. My bills were still looming, my potential was still unrealized, my paychecks hadn’t grown any—but I was going home happy.

I tried an experiment. At the start of my shifts, I’d notice my mood and check my watch. How long was it taking to dispel inner gloom? What were the variables? What if I held the broom in my left hand and dust pan in the right, or vice versa? I became a regular little scientist.

Holy cow! Through independent investigation, I confirmed Fritz Strack’s findings. Consider this my scientific paper— 

mail Nobel nominations to the appropriate address (be sure to spell my name correctly). The guy was right—it was the smile! I was a genius. I wondered if Flipper knew about this...?

But of course, Flipper did know about this. Had beaten both me and Strack to the punch by several tens of millions of years, about the length of time he himself had been smiling—permanently—courtesy of a quirk of biological evolution that had left a grin on his face since before the dawn of time. No wonder he’s perpetually frolicking. Those show biz types sure know their stuff.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2014

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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