Portrait of a Smile


If you’re reading this…Congratulations, you’re alive. If that’s not something to smile about,
then I don’t know what is.”― Chad Sugg, Monsters Under Your Head

I have been tossing around this idea in my mind for a couple of weeks now. Moreso now that the ask mandate seems to be going back into effect. How relevant that the universally recognized symbol of friendliness is a smile. I wonder how many of us have smiles that reach our eyes, crinkling them at the corners and offering genuine love and companionship to others, both friends and strangers.

I keep thinking about the different ways we smile, and the messages conveyed that may now be lost to our future generations because we mask up to stay safe. So here’s my take on missing out on smiles. Remember, I am a teacher, educator, parental figure, hugger by nature (thank Leo Buscaglia for that one, follow the link ahead for a life-changing book).  Masking up not only allows us to NOT smile at one another but also to mask our emotions.

One of the most vivid memories I have from my high school psychology class is reading this book, Living, Loving & Learning, which by now is well-thumbed. Dr. Hug (as Buscaglia was known) writes a brief passage about being in an elevator. In writing about our self-imposed isolation, Dr. B grasps a concept on which he may have missed social media. Without FB, IG, TikTok, Snapchat, etc., we humans no longer get to see anyone smile. Our faces are hidden, and we bask in the knowledge that nobody can figure out what we are feeling. But isn’t that detrimental to the human soul? Humans are by nature social souls.

“If you want to see how alienated we’ve become, watch when a door of an elevator opens. Everyone’s standing like zombies, facing forward, hands to the sides. “Don’t you dare reach this way because you may touch someone.” Heaven forbid! So we all stand at attention, and the door opens, and then one gets out, and another goes in and turns around immediately and faces forward.  Who told you you had to face forward?

You know, I love to walk in an elevator and turn around with my back to the door! And I look at everybody, and I say, “Hi! Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the elevator got stuck and we could all get to know each other?” And then an incredible thing happens. The door opens on the next floor, and everybody gets off! “There’s a crazy man in the elevator. He wants to know us!”-Leo Buscaglia, Ph.D.

I would love to be on that elevator – mask and all ready to meet this incredulous human who loves to love. A smile or gentle touch – these can make a difference in the lives of the children I teach, or a coworker, or even a stranger standing in line at the market. I know how sometimes, just the smile of the person ahead of me looking back has made me feel better, a sort of calm happiness.

But now, pandemic issues are a blunt punch to the soul, and we can no longer share a smile with a stranger to perhaps brighten their day. Way back in the early days of MBB, I wrote about a woman I met at the coffee shop. I smiled, and she asked me to sit with her. Since it was crowded, I obliged and had the most incredible afternoon because of a smile. Click the backlink – you won’t be disappointed.

Anyway, so I’m rambling on, and where was I headed? Oh yes! The Smile Project (or whatever it’s being called). In my opinion, smiles can be categorized by their social function. Smiles may be spontaneous and simple, yet as a form of social interaction, that smile is complex and powerful. So let me talk about the types of smiles I can think of that impact how we socialize.

First, since I am a parent and educator, I want to talk about the REWARD smile. These involve quite a bit of spontaneous and planned stimulation. The result is a rise in dopamine levels, which is the “feel good” drug of the body if you were unaware.  Increased good feeling, better reinforcement for learned behaviors. The best form of positive reward that I know. Now think about that mask. It’s looking like a challenging year ahead for all the educators across the world.

Next, there is the COMPASSIONATE smile. This is the one you often get from the person ahead of you in line. It is reassuring, polite, and communicates trust without saying or doing a thing. These smiles are like mini social connection conduits. (Sorry, I was prepping my STEM center lessons earlier today).

Thirdly, let’s talk about ATTRACTION. Whether intimate or not, there is scientific proof that smiling is an attraction magnet. (No pun intended) Jessika Golle, a psychologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, investigated the interrelationship of happiness and attractiveness. And what was the main attraction? A smile. Totally over the “at” word now, lol)

Lastly, there is the POLITE smile. This smile is not the compassionate one, but the one you use when you need to hide something, like bad news, from someone. Polite smiles help maintain a diplomatic distance between people. Sometimes it is even used for self-preservation; just ask any survivor of any trauma.

So now, let me tie this all together since I kind of left my original path. How did I come to be thinking about smiles? And why was I considering this post at 3 AM? Besides apparent insomnia, I found a brief article on Bored Panda by Jay Weinstein. He has had a pet project since 2013, which is ongoing, called “so I asked them to smile.” I found it so inspiring that simple joy and connection between humans across languages and cultures worldwide. I wonder how he will continue with the mask mandates, and I have to end this post with a rueful smile, thoughts of all the smiles I will miss hidden behind the masks.

Stay motivated and caffeinated!