Chattering Mind

I once wrote an essay called “Why Women Smile” for the women’s magazine Lear’s. More than fifteen years later, I’m still receiving checks from academic presses planning to re-run the article because, apparently, it “teaches well” in first-year college writing classes. This smile piece has also been featured in a lovely textbook called “The Writer’s Presence,” where yours truly is wedged in with writers like Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion!

But here’s the quandry: I now know that a whole chunk of my article is incorrect. Next time they call me, I’m going to say “Stop. Don’t use it. Don’t tell another generation of women not to smile. They should smile broadly.”

In the actual piece, I argue that women smile more than men because they’re insecure and want to be liked. I confess in the article that I am trying to smile less. I also say that if you fake a smile, the smile doesn’t do anything good for you.

For my research at the time, I interviewed noted psychologist and facial expression expert Paul Ekman. I remember that when the piece was published, Ekman didn’t seem so thrilled with it. He didn’t write me back. I now know that’s because he had been trying to tell me that he was conceiving of the human smile in a new way, and that the feminists who thought women should smile less weren’t approaching smiles from the right perspective. But I couldn’t hear him. Ekman then was just a short time from researching Tibetan monks and the Dalai Lama’s smiling meditations. He was on his way to substantiating that smiles–even fake plastered-on smiles–CAN indeed lift our moods and keep us happier. So actually, smiling women have had the right idea all along.

But I was so attached to the notion that feminine niceness was some kind of pathology that I couldn’t hear what Ekman–an incredibly nice guy, by the way–was telling me. Indeed, I couldn’t imagine that if you smiled while seated quietly in meditation, you would spread the energy of cheer throughout the world and rise up feeling better. I couldn’t conceive of the topic spiritually.

Since then, Ekman has published his findings. And my melancholy little prose piece (which my mother always hated anyway) is out there like the Ever-Ready Bunny banging its drum. So until I can make this wrong a right, do me a favor: Smile generously and freely. There are smile meditations all over the web. Try them. Here’s one to start with: Get happy.


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