“A person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American.”
Gray skies are gonna clear up
Put on a happy face.
Brush off that frown and cheer up
Put on a happy face.
From Bye Bye Birdie
I once had a nightmare that some powerful strangers invaded our town and infected the inhabitants with…happiness. Like accepting a savior, people would submit to an injection that made them instantly not only happy, but creative and fulfilled. For a while, there was a group of us who went underground, determined to hold on to our right to unhappiness. I watched in horror and dismay as one by one, my friends succumbed to the lure of joy. Eventually, I was the last holdout, hiding in sewer pipes, skulking in the night, peering into windows where happy people were creating magnificent works of art, designing amazing buildings, singing together and enjoying fabulous food while I shivered in the dark.
Then one day (yes, it was a long dream!) I found myself in a building where a group of people were rehearsing an original multi media tap dancing musical based on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht. You can’t make this stuff up. Nothing would have made me happier than to be part of a production like that. I watched in awe as the sets changed, the eccentric and fabulous choreography matching the poetry, as if I had done it myself. As I sighed, I felt a pin prick. I whirled around, but I was too late, I had been injected with happiness. “No!” I screamed, even as waves of joy began to wash away even the memory of angst, sorrow, anger and fear from my being. I woke up sobbing.
“What is it?” asked my husband Ron. I sobbed out the dream. “But why would you not want to be happy?” he asked, puzzled. “It’s not that I don’t want to be happy,” I mumbled. “I want to choose whether I’m happy or sad. I want happiness to be something that comes and goes, so that I can appreciate it. I want to be able to cry. I don’t want to become a happiness zombie!”
The Declaration of Independence famously states that all “men” are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It seems Americans have interpreted this to mean we are entitled to happiness itself, when actually it just means we have the right to pursue it.
The idea of happiness on earth is relatively recent, and apparently very American. I was once in Ireland and while I was there, an acquaintance won some kind of lottery. “Wow!” I exclaimed in American enthusiasm, “How do you feel?” The woman shrugged and said, “Not so bad.”
In the movie Lost Horizon, a group of people are hijacked to happiness. It is ironic that today’s jihadists believe that they will be rewarded with eternal happiness in the next life, while the first cinematic hijacking was in order to bring a group of people to eternal happiness in this life. In the film, the plane crashes near a mythical kingdom in the Himalayas called Shangri-La, where there is no conflict, no aging, everyone is always serenely happy. But several passengers feel utterly oppressed by such relentless satisfaction and undertake a dangerous journey across the mountains to return back to our imperfect civilization.
Is it possible that we need suffering? Listen to an athlete or soldier brag about their injuries. Where would theater and movies be without conflict? In fact, the very structure of our literature is based on the hero’s struggles against an antagonist. How could we possibly cheer someone who never experiences adversity?
Perhaps there is a physiological difference between unearned happiness and the feeling that one has achieved happiness. The path to happiness perhaps needs to be strewn with thorns and obstacles to feel real. I’m sure there will be a study out there someday that compares the release of neurotransmitters and hormones between people who win after much struggle vs. those who are just given everything they want. For now, you can take a test to find out how happy you are (I’m not kidding).
There is a theory that people didn’t smile much before the 19th century because poor dental hygiene made for an unattractive smile. Could this have been the real reason behind Calvinism? John Calvin once said, “We ought to know that the happiness promised us in Christ does not consist in outward advantages—such as leading a joyous and peaceful life, having rich possessions, being safe from all harm, and abounding with delights such as the flesh commonly longs after. No, our happiness belongs to the heavenly life!” Some say this attitude was a natural response to a perceived harsh existence – it’ll be better in the afterlife. But what if existence just seemed harsh because people never smiled?
I once had a teacher who said that so many people in California have TMJ (Tempo Mandibular Joint Disorder) from clenching their teeth as they smile and say, “Have a nice day.” Perhaps this is an unfair generalization. But is a fake smile as good as a real one? All kinds of experts say that a genuine smile engages muscles around the eyes in a way a fake smile doesn’t. But it’s easy to learn how to use those muscles. The Alba Method, a body language technology developed by neuroscientist Susanah Bloch, teaches people step by step exercises for how to embody any emotion, even if you don’t feel it. Could happiness simply be a matter of “Fake it till you make it?”
Meanwhile, there is scientific evidence that frowning affects posture and can even lead to depression and heart disease. (And that a shot of Botox can relieve it!) Frowning is yielding to gravity, letting everything sink down.
On the other hand, imagining a smile can change your mood. Try this Feldenkrais exercise: Close your eyes and imagine the corners of your mouth moving outward toward your ears. Don’t do anything, just imagine. As you continue sensing your mouth, also imagine the corners of your eyes moving outward, so your whole face widens.
It may be that Americans created the smiley face, but just imagine if everyone spent a few minutes a day widening the face. What would it be like in the midst of an argument to remember this little exercise? We are told that happiness comes from within. Could “within” literally be within our physiology?
Have a nice day!