The Significance of the Smile

COMMENTARY: One cannot overestimate the healing significance of the smile.

The smile is a two-way street.
The smile is a two-way street. (photo: Tint Media / Shutterstock)

We can learn a great deal about life by observing the reactions of children. A child’s smile is an early indication that he is a rational animal. No other animal in the kingdom of animals is capable of smiling. And certainly, hyenas do not laugh.

A child smiles as a way of rejoicing in his discovery of things. His smile is a spontaneous affirmation of the surprising existence of things that he encounters for the first time. It is a wondrous thing for anything to be: a cloud, a flower, a dog, a toy, another person. In his welcoming smile the child is saying, “I’m glad you exist. You surprise me by coming to me out of nowhere”! I greet you with the only gesture I have in my vocabulary — my smile.

As we age and get accustomed to things, we have fewer reasons to smile. We lose our childhood innocence and familiarity takes away what Wordsworth called, “the splendor in the grass and the glory in the flower.”  But children bequeath to adults an important lesson, that to smile is to affirm someone in his existence. It is a natural way of saying, “I am pleased that you exist.” This is the smile that teems with interpersonal significance. In the geometry of human relationships, the smile is the shortest distance between two persons. Comedienne Phyllis Diller, not known for giving geometric advice, states, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.” Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who spent a lifetime smiling, tells us that, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

Charles Dickens paints a most unattractive picture of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who could not smile: 

“The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw one degree at Christmas.” 

Scrooge, like the devil, could not smile because his heart had no warmth.

Once converted by the magic of Christmas, however, he was a thoroughly changed man: “I am light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.” At last, he could rejoice in being alive and begin to smile! 

The smile is a two-way street. One person smiles because he rejoices in seeing the good in the other; the other smiles back because he delights in the affirmation that a smile bestows upon him. One cannot overestimate the healing significance of the smile. 

The famed essayist, Joseph Addison has remarked that:

“What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. These are but trifles, to be sure, but scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.”

Hal Roach spent his career igniting smiles around the globe. His famous eulogy on the significance of the smile contains these two gems: “It enriches those who receive it without impoverishing those who give; It happens in a flash and the memory of it lasts forever.”

The smile is a nonverbal form of communication that goes from heart to heart. It is the key that is preordained to fit anyone else’s heart. It is an affirmation of the other’s right to be here. It often triggers a smile in return and can even be a prelude to friendship. It is a way of acknowledging both the truth and the goodness of the other.

An infant learns to smile at his mother’s breast while the mother re-learns the naturalness of the smile. A community has its basis in the smile. Greeting and farewells are enriched by the smile. Smiles are also conveyors of hope. As long as we can smile, we are on top of things. It is far better to smile than to sulk. It is, as musician, artist and author Tom Wilson tells us, “A facelift that’s within everyone’s price range.” To quote Mother Teresa once more, “Peace begins with a smile.”

A remarkable number of songs are based on the smile. One that is familiar to many contains the words, “Blue skies, smiling at me; nothing but blue skies do I see.” It is possible to look at nature and sense that nature is smiling back at you. Theologians might suggest that this is because it is God himself that is smiling through nature. In this case, the smile represents good things that are about to happen.

The various benefits of smiling are shown in smile therapy. Studies have shown that smiling can improve a person’s health by boosting the immune system, lowering the heart rate and blood pressure, reducing pain and even prolonging one’s life. Psychologists have also linked regular smiling to better relationships among friends and family. Keep on smiling seems to be good advice, even when, as the song says, “your heart is aching.” “That's the time you must keep on trying. Smile, what's the use of crying? You'll find that life is still worthwhile. If you just smile.”

Smiles are contagious. The first one is the most important one to start the chain-reaction. Anyone can be the initiator and, as such, swings the door wide open. No credentials are required. Just light up your face with sunshine and put on a happy face.