Everybody wants to be happy. I don’t think there is one person in this world who would disagree with that statement. Sure, there are some people who seem to look for reasons to be unhappy, but this constant unhappiness is usually just a way for those people to get the attention and sympathy from others that ultimately makes them… say it with me… happy! Even those of us who strive to maintain a consistently stoic demeanor do want, deep down inside, to feel true happiness.
Well, good news! Your happiness, it turns out, is completely under your control! In his critically acclaimed 2005 book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores, among other things, the relationship between ones facial expression and ones emotional state. Perhaps the most interesting discovery he makes in this book is that our facial expressions can actually influence our emotional state; it does not just have to work the other way around. “We think of the face as the residue of emotion. What this research showed, though, is that the process works in the opposite direction as well. Emotion can also start on the face” (Gladwell, 208). While the researchers in Gladwell’s book did discover notable differences between involuntary and voluntary facial expressions, the body’s systems function almost identically to a smile caused by an external catalyst and one created voluntarily with no catalyst.
So what does all this scientific mumbo-jumbo have to do with you? Well, it’s quite simple. Think about the last time you were really happy; so overwhelmed with happiness and joy that you couldn’t wipe the smile off of your face if you wanted to. When we consider the source of this internal happiness, we inevitably look to the external event surrounding it: the catalyst for our smile. But consider the possibility that the event was not the source of the happiness, the smile was. All the external event did was provoke your facial muscles to contract in a way that made you smile or laugh or smirk. The happiness was actually a result of your expression, not the catalyst for the expression.
Our reactions to situations are what create emotions in our bodies and minds. Yes, we are often faced with situations that cause our faces to involuntarily create expressions of sadness, anger, frustration, etc. but the simple realization that it is the expression and not the event that is causing an emotional reaction in our bodies could be enough to start controlling these emotions. It is okay to feel negative emotions. It is okay to cry, to frown, to give way to sadness or loneliness, but there is a lesson to be learned here. There is a sense of freedom that comes with the understanding that you are in the driver’s seat of your emotions. You control them, so they can never control you. Once you understand that simply by contracting or relaxing your facial muscles, you can release brain chemicals that make you feel true emotions, you are no longer the victim. You can no longer blame outside forces for your negative emotions. When all is said and done, you choose whether or not you want to be happy.
For some of us, this freedom is terrifying. For those of us who spend our lives playing the victim, moping around day after day, complaining about everything, looking to others for sympathy… this discovery would force the creation a whole new life, a whole new experience, one that doesn’t blame anything or anyone else for how we feel. This is scary, but this is freedom.
So, the next time you are in an uncontrollable situation: stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, in line behind the slowest moving woman at the grocery store, late for an important work meeting… turn up the corners of your mouth. Smile. The external world will still be the same, but your internal world will change tremendously.