The power of a smile that says ‘you belong’

This week I am revisited the effects of smiling because it is happening for real right in-front of my eyes. I have a series of team building exercises to do as people who are finally returning to the workplace after the Covid distanced working. That means people are, in most cases, looking each other directly in the eyes and smiling. It is quite a magical thing to watch as people reaffirm their relationships as friends and colleagues after such a long time apart.

A few years ago I had been listening to a TED talk, while on a plane, that was concerned with the neurolinguistic pathways between the brain the muscles of the face. I love research generally but when it matches the Ayurvedic theories that I studied in my early training it does make me smile. How is it the the Rishis (scientific researchers) thousands of years ago knew things that we can only now verify with brain scanners and nerve tests? The ancient Ayurvedic science of Mudra explains how the structure of our body expresses who we are and the nature of our personality. It also explains the emotional and cognitive relationship between stance, expression and gesture.  

The research behind the Ted talk explained that when you are in a good frame of mind your brain responds by releasing positive endorphins. This process initiates a neural muscular response that results in you smiling. The muscles in your face around your mouth and eyes respond automatically. When you see someone walking down the road smiling you know that their brain is full of positive endorphins. Smiling is common to all human beings of all races in every country across the world. Smiling is a universal response saying that things are okay.

Smiling has a powerful social function in that it tells others that we are friendly and not aggressive or that we are not going to kill them it confirms that we accept them into the group. As a social signal smiling bonds groups on two levels. The first is cognitive recognition that things are alright and the second is the collective out pouring of positive endorphins in the group brain and the corresponding warm emotional feelings that are produced.

When I smile your brain creates positive endorphins and you smile. 

How weird is that?

Smiling it would seem has been with us throughout evolution as both an expression of inner feeling and as a social signal of group bonding.

The importance here is in the realisation of the synchronicity between brain and face muscles. The relationships is based in that when the brain produces positive hormones the muscles of the face smile. What we now know is that if the muscles of the face force a smile the brain responds by releasing positive endorphins which can make us feel better. 

Some time you need to fake it to make it

Even if you are feeling really down, sad and blue and your face looks sad. When you force a smile the nerves and  muscles in your face send a message to your brain telling it that things are good or at least getting better. Your brain then begins to responds by initiating the secretion of happy endorphins. I love the brain though its responses can be limited. For example your brain is unable to tell the difference between whether something is actually happening or if you are only imagining it or, in this case, forcing it.

One physical aspect of a smile, that is so important, are the eyes and the forehead. When someone only smiles with their mouth and not their eyes and forehead it is not a real smile and often looks and feels insincere. For a smile to be real and have the required effect the eyes are open wide producing laughter lines in the corners.

Enter Botox 

Consider this relationship between the muscles of the face and the endorphins in the brain. The way it works is as though they are either end of a tube, you can’t have one without the other. Positive brain smiley muscles, smiley muscles positive brain.

Now, what happens if the brain wants to smile but the muscles of the face are damaged or paralysed? The system breaks down. As much as the brain wants to create a smile the feedback from the muscles is that there is no smile to be had. When people use Botox they are paralysing their muscles so that there is limited feedback between the muscles and the brain either way. Positive endorphins in the brain cannot create a smile and a responsive smile in the muscles to a good event cannot tell the brain that there is something going on to make it worth releasing some positive endorphins.

So now we have Botox induced depression. 

Botox can become an addiction. As with any other addictive type behaviour. The problem is that addiction tends to increase as the effectiveness of the substance diminishes. With Botox the drive is towards creating more positive endorphins, the just person wants to feel good about who they. So perhaps, someone is feeling a bit down about how they look and decide to have some Botox to make them feel better. The drive to feel better is the common emotion behind all addictions. 

Because of the muscular paralysis there can be no positive feedback to the brain, the desired effect of the Botox fails to be achieved. There can be no feedback between the muscles of the face and the brain. In fact it can end up having the reverse effect making the person may feel worse not better. They have invested time and money in this procedure to improve the way that they feel and see themselves and their mood in general and now they feel worse.

The standard response in addictive behaviour to such a situation is to use more of the addictive substance because that is what we belief will make us feel better. This is called chasing the dragon in opium dens. The reality is that the more of the addictive substance we use the less is its effect and more we need, or think that we need. This is why all addiction get worse over time. With botox the more that is used the more the problem increases. If the Botox is the very thing that is stopping the positive feedback between muscle and brain we now have what is now viewed as Botox induced depression.

Simply smiling in the mirror could be more effective than using Botox

For me the self induced disfigurement of Botox, fillers, lifts, piercings and tattoos is a huge sadness. The human form has a natural beauty that emanates the positive feelings and attitudes from deep within us. To mask this natural beauty with what is seen as adornments and enhancement is so sad and represents yet another behaviour that we use to avoid facing who we are, and actually sorting our problems out, in the drive to make shortcuts to our happiness. But, then as someone who has never been able to get my head around why people need to wear makeup I must own to being out of step with modern social thinking, I have an anachronistic point of view. 

Perhaps the reality is that when we feel good we look good and simply attempting to make us look good may not make us feel good at all.

Whoever you are and however you choose to present yourself ensure that the end result is increasing your own happiness not making your feel worse.

Take care

Sean X 

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