Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

The science of faking a smile: Mean Mommy at summer's end

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It was 3 o'clock on a hot summer afternoon, my kids were restless, and the insults were flying.

With every activity either a competition or an opportunity to put their sibling down, one yelled 'Stupid baby!' and the other responded with 'Shut up!' and then Mean Mommy swooped in. She raged and threatened time-outs all around, to no great effect. She waved her finger and made her voice as quietly vicious as she could but as most kids will do when offered meanness, they dished it right back. It seemed like it would never be bedtime, and it seemed like no one in the house would ever be happy again.

Summer's end is a a time that as a parent I both savor and dread, often within the same day. With so many 'lasts' to squeeze in - last trip to the beach, last leisurely family bike ride, last chance to catch an outdoor concert - the days are somewhat motivated by fear of not making the most of the beautiful weather and relaxed schedule.

And yet at times I guiltily feel an intense longing to return to the order of the school year. By the time August rolls around, many summer thrills no longer hold the same appeal that they held in June, and I crave an escape from the senseless bickering that occurs when the kids, because they can't find one thing to hold their attention, get at each other.
 b2ap3_thumbnail_smiley.jpg
I recently read an interesting article about a study that found smiling, even when you don't genuinely feel happy, can help reduce the effects of stress.

Cool fact from the article - there are two types of smiles: a 'standard' smile that just involves the muscles surrounding the mouth, and a 'genuine' or 'Duchenne' smile that also engages the muscles around the eyes. Turns out that even just muscling your way into a 'standard' smile, regardless of minor stresses, can lower your heart rate, make you feel better, and improve your health.

When Mean Mommy is raging, even if the kids say something cute or endearing, she usually refuses to budge from her meanness. But this one afternoon after the 3 o'clock showdown, because every other option had been exhausted, I forced my face into a 'standard' smile. When I smiled I exhaled a little longer, my jaw released, and my shoulders dropped. It seemed too simple, could a fake smile really be that powerful?

Smiling is softening, lightening. It's poison for Mean Mommy, even if it doesn't start out with any genuine happiness behind it. Mean Mommy is a gnarled, hardened creature who is just waiting for someone to tick her off. The smile derailed her train of rage just long enough for something new to set in. It was my job to decide what to put in place of the meanness.

Fueled by the power of my fake smile, I mustered up a joke and the kids giggled. And gradually the mean comments ceased and we fell into a playful mode of being together.

Meanness follows meanness, but contentment is contagious. The more I smiled, the happier the kids looked. And as their laughter grew, I felt my smile turning into something genuine, even 'Duchenne.'
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_Navasana.jpgI've been giving this fake smiling business a try on my yoga mat, too. Even after all these years of practicing, there are some poses that I can't say I genuinely like, poses that I tend to either avoid or grimace through. In my classes this week I've been encouraging students to make their yoga practice more advanced by smiling at times they would rather just curse me out for making them stay too long. Hello, navasana!
  
It's amazing how well it works. The tension that builds up from working hard in a challenging pose immediately dissipates once you smile. The principle is the same regardless of where you apply it: at home with the kids, when you're on a deadline at work, or when you're just working hard on the mat. It's common sense, I suppose. But it's always fun when science and common sense align.

Grin and bear it. Fake it till you make it. Whatever catchy phrase you use to remember it, know that just by deciding to smile you can help yourself to feel better. Look out, Mean Mommy.....

Kerry is the Founder & Director of Bloom Yoga Studio, voted Best Yoga Studio in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and Citysearch. As a practicing yogi, writer, and mother of three, Kerry is all about making the principles and philosophies of yoga real and accessible for day-to-day living. You can find Kerry on Google+.

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