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The Surprising Power of a Smile

Have you overlooked a simple way to be happier?

John Amodeo
Source: John Amodeo

After visiting Thailand many times, I’ve been wondering how it seems so easy for many Thais to flash radiant smiles. After a short time there, you’d understand why Thailand is called “The Land of Smiles.”

It‘s easy to cynically conclude that the smiles are fake shows of happiness designed to allure clueless tourists or conceal deeper emotions. And yes, a nervous smile may hide such feelings as anger, shame, or sadness. But after careful observation and speaking with many travelers and ex-pats, I’m convinced that the smiles are often genuine.

How can it be that in a third world-country where the average wage is about US$435 per month, many people are seemingly content? Might we learn from this attitude to find more happiness?

Thailand is largely a Buddhist country. The teachings and practices central to Buddhism, such as acceptance, mindfulness, and being kind to all living beings, might have something to do with the contentment many people seem to feel.

One of the most common expressions in Thailand is mai pen rai, which is loosely translated as, “It’s okay,” or “Don’t worry.” Not wanting to inconvenience anyone or make waves, Thai people are quick to be agreeable. This has its shadow side (no society is perfect, right?). There is often a lack of directness, and it can be maddening to not know what a person truly feels and wants. Yet there’s something appealing about the interpersonal sensitivity. Check out a helpful article by Thai writer, Nanticha Ocharoenchai for more about the complexities of the mai pen rai attitude.

Another factor that may prompt smiling faces may be the sense of community that stems from a strong sense of family and friendship. Thais often hang out in groups and seem to know how to have happy moments together.

Inflated Hopes and Expectations

Many of us have grown up on a steady diet of expecting and wanting more. The media fans the flames of our desires. We’re preoccupied with achieving some ultimate goal rather than enjoying the journey. Of course, future planning is important, but are we postponing our happiness to some imagined future time, such as our retirement years, rather than relishing the moment?

It takes a strong sense of self to not succumb to the belief that we’ll be happier with more stuff. We work hard to buy a big house and then work even harder to pay the mortgage and property taxes. If someone has more wealth, we may become envious and perhaps crave the imagined sense of respect and belonging that comes with keeping up with the latest trends and gadgets.

There’s no shame in wanting to live more comfortably. People in developing countries and even in the West would like to have a reliable washing machine or better smart phone.

But when is enough enough? Can we find a middle way between wanting more and being grateful for what we have, especially our health? Can we find a way to hold our desires lightly without letting them sabotage our appreciation for what is ours? Greater freedom accompanies accepting our limits. Happiness comes from cultivating the art of living in the moment, not from leaning too far into the future.

A natural smile springs from an inner sense of feeling content and connected. If we’re feeling deprived, we may not feel inclined to offer a generous smile to people we encounter. We’re more likely to smile when we’re experiencing some inner serenity. Being at peace with ourselves is only possible when we’re living in the present moment, rather than being preoccupied by what we don’t have.

I’m not suggesting that Thailand or other developing countries are a paradise free from suffering. It is stressful to wonder how you’ll pay your bills. Nor am I suggesting that social and political factors are not a dominant suppressive force all over the world.

Yet in societies that value inner peace and kindness, there seems to be a sense of community and connectedness despite challenges, a co-regulation of one another’s nervous systems, which contributes to an authentic smile emerging from the depths of people's being.

My spirits are lifted when a disarming smile drifts my way. Research suggests that even faking a smile can help us feel better. It reduces stress and lifts our mood. If smiling does not come naturally for you or seems distasteful, the principle of "fake it til you make it" may be good advice, especially with people you know and feel safe with.

Here is an exercise from Vietnamese meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that might boost your mood:

As you breathe in, say to yourself: Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Then, as you breathe out, think:
Breathing out, I smile.

You may want to be more mindful of when you smile—or don’t smile. Perhaps you can find a tad more generosity in your heart to offer a warm smile to people you encounter during your day, when it feels right to do so. You might discover that your warm smile has not only the power to uplift others, but that it also offers a wonderful gift to yourself—the gift of enjoying more moments of being present and connected.

© John Amodeo

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