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How do I smile behind a mask?

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This time will be remembered-11

By Sunita Vijay
A WhatsApp forward read, ‘You are not fully dressed if you forget wearing a smile.’ It made sense yet seemed preposterous during the corona-phase when the mask conceals one’s smile and the new norm demands – you aren’t fully dressed unless you wear a mask. How then, must I smile behind a mask!

A smile is the most important micro-expression, an involuntary conveyer of subtle joy, a gift bestowed only to humans that a mask brutally hides. It’s a rich source of emotional information, making us look good in the eyes of others. People over the centuries have been delighted by Mona Lisa’s unique smile. There is something in this woman’s coy yet powerful smile that lures visitors to gaze at her at the Louvre Museum in Paris each year. It is indeed the most potent tool – costing nothing, yet the social and psychological benefits are enormous! A smile can forge an instant connect. It speaks loudly – “I am friendly, I don’t bring danger.” It has substantial power to make people comfortable around you.

Take note of how you feel when you smile. There is a feeling of instant joy when the face wears a smile that no makeup can substitute. Internet and technology have reduced real interactions. We find solace in our gadgets. We are glued to our cell phones. Yet, while texting, the ‘smiling’ emoji comes to help when words fall short of the required ‘mellowed’ expression. If the ‘friendly’ emoji can perform damage-control in the virtual world’s interactions, imagine how a smile in the real world can mend, melt, calm, elate, sparkle, delight and befriend many hearts.

If the mask has robbed us of smiles, try smizing
COVID -19 is here to stay. We can’t miss out on masks, hand hygiene, and social distancing, with the accompanying inconvenience of wearing masks – headaches, suffocation, muffled voice, pressure on ears, fogged spectacles, shooting in the dark for those with hearing disability dependent on lip reading! Masks obscure the lower half of a person’s face making it difficult to send and read normal emotional cues. The way out is to try smizing, a beautiful term, coined by Tyra Banks, referring to smiling with your eyes.
The reason we look into the eyes of others while communicating says it all. Eyes are expressive, a window to the soul! A happy face, sad eyes; pulled-down face, but happy eyes, can be detected instantly. So, let eyes take over the act of smiling. Just observe the corners of the mouth when one smiles behind a mask. They turn up, and laugh lines appear around the eyes. A study too has revealed that observing the area around the eyes was enough to recognise someone else’s feelings.

The mask should not be a deterrent, so continue smiling behind them. Smiling or smizing, both are contagious. The Duchenne smile is particularly delightful – an expression that signals true enjoyment! It occurs when the zygomaticus major muscle (a facial muscle that elevates and everts the angle of the mouth) lifts the corners of your mouth at the same time that the orbicularis oculi muscles (a muscle in the face that closes the eyelids) lifts your cheeks and crinkles your eyes at the corners. It lifts the mood, calms one down, and helps strike connections with other people.

Ron Gutmen, an inventor, educator, and writer, mentioned some interesting findings during a TED Talk. He said, “In addition to theorising on evolution in ‘The Origin of Species’, Charles Darwin also wrote the facial feedback response theory which states that the act of smiling itself actually makes us feel better, rather than smiling being merely a result of feeling good.”

In a German study, researchers used MRI imaging to measure brain activity before and after injecting Botox, which incidentally suppresses smiling muscles. The finding supported Darwin’s theory, showing that facial feedback modifies the neural processing of emotional content in the brain, in a way that helps us feel better when we smile. Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanism in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure inducer, cannot match. A single smile is capable of providing the brain stimulation worth 2,000 chocolate bars, says an article published in the Forbes.

In another article in rallyhealth.com – “Bea de Gelder, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, says that, as social creatures, humans weren’t designed to obscure our facial expressions with cloth coverings. ‘Social contact,’ she says, ‘is as essential to survival as food and drink.’ It’s more than the fact that we rely on others to meet our basic needs in the early and late stages of life, she says. Research has shown that social contact improves physical and mental health, increases immunity and reduces stress.” And smiles are indeed an integral part of socialising.

The saga of psychologists glorifying smiles doesn’t end here. Research also shows that when we smile, we tend to view others’ facial expressions more positively. According to Alex Sel, psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, the face is one of, if not the most “important places in the body to look at for social information”. Her study suggests that people are more likely to perceive even neutral faces as positive, when they themselves are smiling.

Arguably, a smile tucked away behind a mask fails to be noticed, but were we to embrace smizing and continue smiling to induce a sense of well-being, feel good about ourselves, produce happy cells in the body – corona will surely be no impediment in making us likeable, spirited and positive!