|kids doing a good job of "fmiling" at the beach|
I was crooked-tree-posing in yoga the other day when our instructor told us to smile. She said our smiling muscles prompt our brains to produce dopamine—a neurotransmitter that is part of our brain’s reward system: it makes us feel good, reduces stress and can even increase our tolerance for pain.
Really? How did I get this far in life without knowing that I have what amounts to a morphine pump built right into my face? Intrigued, I dutifully carved a smile onto what had previously been a very pensive tree, and waited for my fix. But wearing an awkward premeditated grin while wobbling on one leg among a bunch of other crooked trees, I felt more like a conspicuous dork than a stoner.
So I tried it again later, when I felt more relaxed (more relaxed than at yoga?), driving home in the privacy of my car. While sitting at a red light, I smiled at my dashboard in earnest—except it was totally fake. How could it be otherwise? Still, I thought I felt it, a positive change, a hit of happiness. Was that possible?
I looked at the person in the car next to me, but they didn’t seem to have noticed anything. I wondered, is a made-up smile as worthless as, say, a bag of dried porcinis, bought in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert? Or is it more like a generic drug, cheaper, but with the same effects?
I googled, “can a fake smile produce dopamine?” I found many articles connecting dopamine to smiling. This one is from a reputable source. But, in my brief search, I only found one that specifically addressed fake smiles. The author, Bernard Weschler, has no apparent credentials on the subject at all (he teaches speed reading), but with no other options, I read his piece anyway (speedily, of course).
Bernard says we should practice smiling for 20 consecutive seconds every day. After 20 seconds, apparently, our fake smile will cue our brain to produce dopamine which, in turn, will generate a real smile. My memories of sitting for wedding pictures do not jive with this theory, but I decided to give it a whirl.
I stood in my living room with a stopwatch and started smiling at myself in the mirror. I thought I had a pretty decent smile going at somewhere around 15 seconds, but then my teeth started to get dry and I began to feel like I had a ruler stuck in my mouth. Hmmm. Thinking my experiment had been only mildly successful, I stopped smiling and turned back to my computer. Then I surprised myself with an honest to goodness real live smile. It came out of nowhere, and I even sort of giggled to myself in the empty room.
Did my fake smile start a chain reaction that led to laughter?
Then I got really interested. If smiling changes the chemistry in your brain, what happens if you hold a fake smile (a “smike,” or maybe a “fmile”?) while you’re upset, or while looking at something that makes you unhappy. Will it make you feel better?
I tried it.
These are probably the only circumstances under which Mitt and I could manage to fmile at each other (let alone smile). But here you have it. He’s smiling. I’m smiling. What’s happening?
Something weird. I actually felt a twinge in my head at first—a brief disorienting swoop. I’m serious. Was there an initial clashing of chemicals? And does that make Mitt a dopamine inhibitor? I don’t know, but, aside from the fact that 20 seconds is a long time to fmile at this particular guy, I’m amazed to report that my Cheshire grin eventually became real. Dopamine must be one powerful drug!
Given that power, I think it’s a total waste to practice so much smiling alone. Besides, smiling at strangers is way easier than fmiling to yourself. So I’ve taken my smile on the road. I always tried to smile at people before, but now I have a mission about me. I feel like I’m walking around with a secret tray of jello shooters. Do the folks at the post office know they were just visited by the dopamine fairy?
If this stuff really can reduce aggression, reduce stress, create feelings of cooperation and happiness, then I say we spread it around. Smile, smike, fmile, whatever you need to do to get “doped’ up, and then, share!