Modern science is discovering what Jewish wisdom already knew: smiling is crucial to our well-being.
By BENJAMIN LEON
A smile can make someone’s day. That’s the conclusion of both modern researchers and ancient Jewish thinkers who long recognised the crucial role a smile can play in our well-being. Here are six facts about smiles, reflecting Jewish wisdom and modern scientific findings:
l Smiling improves health
The very act of smiling can make us happy. That’s the surprising finding of two psychological scientists, Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman, of the University of Kansas, in a groundbreaking 2012 study. They divided people into groups and asked them to complete a series of stressful tasks; some were asked to smile while others were not.
The results were striking. Participants who smiled experienced markedly lower levels of stress. “The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment,” explains Dr Pressman. “Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!”
l Smiling is contagious
Smiling at someone is the surest way to put a grin on their face — and make them feel happy. People subconsciously mimic the facial expressions of the people around them. When we see a smile, we often can’t help but follow suit. “Smiling will change our body’s nervous system in a way that fits with happiness,” explains Adrienne Wood, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin.
l Commanded to smile
“Receive everyone with a cheerful face,” advised the great Rabbi Shammai (Pirkei Avot 1:16) in a famous piece of advice that people still try to follow to this day.
l Smiling makes us more attractive.
Smiling makes us more attractive than being healthier, losing weight and wearing makeup. That’s the surprising finding of a 2017 study at Swansea University in England. People judging the attractiveness of men and women in photos consistently rated those who were smiling as more beautiful. The effects of having a smiling expression were as powerful as being slim, wearing makeup, and being young, researchers found.
l Your smile affects everyone around you
Your face is in the public domain. The expression you wear affects everyone around you. The Chazon Ish noted that smiling is not just a personal matter. Exuding happiness has a profound influence on everyone around us.
l Smiling helps us to see the world as a better place.
Judaism advises us to “judge everyone favourably” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). According to a 2015 study at University College London, smiling might help us to achieve this.
Researchers asked participants to look at various photos while they underwent MRIs. Some of the subjects were asked to smile while they did, others to frown and others were asked to have neutral expressions on their face. Those people who smiled during the experiment were more likely to perceive other people favourably. It seems that the very act of smiling makes us more magnanimous and conditioned to like other people more.
Thousands of years later, modern science is discovering what ancient Jews already knew: smiling is crucial to our well-being, and sharing a smile with others is a way to brighten their whole day.
l Benjamin Leon is a member of the Jewish community in Zimbabwe.
Feedback: vleon@ mango.zw