Smiling: The Cure-All?

In second grade, I met a Romanian girl who had a fairly thick accent, despite having been raised in the United States. Alphabetically, our last names put us next to each other in the line we stood in as we walked with our class around the school to different activities and modules. She was always super friendly, and I’ve always been open to making new friends. However, there was one slight problem: I couldn’t understand her too well through her accent – and I didn’t have the heart to admit that to her. In order communicate, we used to just flash these huge smiles at each other; we called them “monster smiles,” a term coined by our second grade art teacher.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this experience taught me that a smile is worth at least a million.

Even with a quick smile, we began to share a special bond. Eventually, my new friend began to drop her accent and we began speaking outside of our language of smiles, but if it weren’t for those smiles that sparked our friendship, I don’t know if I’d be writing this article right now. The girl with the big toothy smiles ended up guiding me through the past fourteen years. Over time, she served many roles: my sister, my therapist, my study buddy, my partner-in-crime – and, most importantly, my best friend to this day.

Ironically enough, however, this article isn’t to praise the wonderful facial expression that brought me to my best friend; rather, it’s to explore the negative effects it’s had on my life and on those individuals I’ve observed around me.

I’ve always been a fairly smiley person; there’s something about me that always wants to be the person to light up the room, even if that’s not what I’m feeling internally. And yes, I of course was one of those kids who made their parents spend thousands of dollars on orthodontic work so that I could absolutely ~love~ my smile.

But as I flash these smiles in moments of hardship, there’s always been a part of me that’s felt like I’m not only lying to myself, but lying to others when I do this; why can’t I just showcase my actual feelings? We’re all humans after all, right? We all experience the ups and downs; why couldn't I match my facial expression to my internal emotions in the moments that I wasn’t feeling my absolute best?

Unintentionally, or possibly just outside of my own self-awareness, there have in fact been times where I haven’t been able to keep up with this. And with that, I’ve heard one of the phrases that I hate hearing more than just about anything:

Why do you look upset? You should be happy!”

There is so much wrong with this statement that is truly embedded within what is wrong with the lack of conversations that take place around mental health and personal wellbeing in our society. After hearing this statement uttered to someone around me recently, I wanted to take the time to write about the importance of ensuring that the words we say to our peers, friends and family – even those with the best of intentions – do not cause angst, anxiety, or further stress among those individuals that we care about.

First of all, questioning someone’s happiness shouldn’t a public announcement.

If you’re actually concerned with someone’s mental state, asking them why they look upset and sounding annoyed about it in front of a whole group of friends probably isn’t the best way to approach the situation. If a friend doesn’t look their happiest, maybe it’s because yes, you’re right – they aren’t happy in that moment. Help them by showing a genuine concern privately; chances are, if they don’t look their happiest, they probably aren’t at their best, and it’s rare that an individual wants to suddenly publically confide in the ten individuals around them about that.

Avoid dictating someone’s emotions to them; never tell someone that they should be happy.

In one of the hardest periods of my personal life, I’ll never forget having a friend telling me I should be happy; telling me I’d looked absolutely miserable and she hadn’t seen me smile all day. She was right; I did – I had a lot going on that she was completely unaware of at the time.

Until you know what someone is going through, please try and refrain from making a judgment on her behavior or how she should behave. No one should be forced to suppress their feelings, and it’s certainly not going to help someone reach happiness if they feel like they can’t even feel their own emotions when they’re around their own friends.

Don’t get me wrong: I love smiling. That’s where this article began. I love having a rush of endorphins; whether I’m smiling because I can’t stop laughing when I’m with friends, I’m happy for someone I know, I’ve had a killer workout, or I’ve just accomplished something I never thought I would – I love the feeling I get as my cheekbones rise toward my eyes and I grin in pure bliss.

But with many of my smiles have come many tears, many frowns, and many struggles. And to be honest, I think that’s made each genuine smile all the more wonderful.

As I mentioned, I met my best friend through the power of smiling. But it has not been all laughs; we’ve cried, we’ve struggled – but we’ve been there for each other through it all.

The reason we’ve managed to maintain such a strong friendship from second grade to senior year of college because we’ve accepted each other’s smiles along with our frowns, and we’ve dedicated our time to actively being there to support each other – ultimately looking to support each other and bring out more of those endorphin-filled moments.

The next time you’re tempted to question someone’s happiness – or lack thereof – I’d encourage you to remember this: whether you’re at a nice dinner or out for a late night on a Saturday, there could be so many things racing through someone’s mind. Rather than questioning them, let your friends, family and peers express their emotions. If they’re not smiling 100% of the time: it’s okay. Don’t make them feel like they need to put on a smile; let them put that on when they’re ready.

In a world where we put so much emphasis on improving ourselves and accepting others for who they are – whether it’s their sexuality, race, ethnic background, or religious beliefs – there is something to be said for accepting others for their own emotions and personal circumstances. We don’t need to understand them – not everything in others’ lives is for us to know about. Nevertheless, we need to be cognizant and actively aware of them so we can show genuine concern for those we care about. We need to show genuine concern rather than forcing emotions on those around us.

Just with that change in our behavior, I think we’ll actually end up seeing more honest smiles surrounding us every day. And wasn’t that the goal in the first place anyway?