Many of you have heard of the adage: ‘fake it till you make it’. For my late and very great grandmother this meant that you put on a smile and think happy thoughts even when you are down. She was convinced this worked, and as with so many things in life it turns out my grandmother – a woman who personified personal resiliency – was right!
In the book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell references several clinical studies that were conducted to map the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. The researchers knew that certain emotions such as anger or sadness generate common facial expressions such as thin lips or frowns. But what they discovered was that the reverse was also true. In other words, our facial expressions have a profound impact on our emotional state. So, for instance, if we were an actor who spent the day frowning or miming sadness, it would produce profoundly negative feelings or what the researchers described as “marked changes in the autonomic nervous system” (Gladwell, Blink, 2005, p. 206).
By contrast, the physical reproduction of a smile generates positive emotions in test subjects. We all know that physical exercise generates endorphins which elevate our emotional state. Though the science behind it is not as well understood, a smile has a similar effect in the human nervous system. Once again, science has managed to catch up to folk wisdom many years after the fact..
Many of us have experienced a related truism: when we smile and approach the world with positive emotions, we tend to attract positive people and events. Which leads us to another common saying first penned by Stanley West: “smile and the world smiles with you…”.
So what do we take from all this? In practical terms my advice is simple: take advantage of every happy moment, especially when you are in the midst of despair. Sometimes when we are struggling our mind becomes our own worst enemy. Let me illustrate with a simple example. Melissa is facing depression and spends most of her time feeling downright horrible. She is watching a movie and before she realizes it she is lost in the moment. One of her favourite comedic actors does something funny and she starts to laugh. But before she can truly enjoy the moment a little voice inside her reminds her: ‘Hey wait! You’re supposed to be upset!’ The happy moment is squashed before it begins and Melissa’s cycle of depression deepens. This might seem simplistic but this is how it works for many people.
Once again, it is essential for those who wish to develop personal resiliency to be aware of this pattern and make a mental decision to break it. If we take the example of Melissa watching the movie, I would have advised her to pause, question that little voice inside her, reject it, and allow herself to laugh and enjoy the moment. Picture that little voice as the tiny devil on your shoulder as in the old Flintstone’s cartoons (oh my have I ever dated myself!). Don’t trust that guy! Instead, think of life as made up of millions of little moments for happiness. You can choose to embrace them, as my wonderful grandmother did, or not. One path leads to fulfillment and happiness; the other does not. For those individuals seeking personal resiliency and fulfillment, there is only one choice to make. Smile, my friends, whenever you can.