My friend sent me a little video clip in which a young beatific man – a cross-legged, Indian, yoga-guru type – suggests that the best thing we can do for ourselves in life is to smile. “Ok, I see where he is coming from,” I thought, “but what if it’s one of those days when you’re carrying around a lot of mental noise and worries?” As if he could read my mind, the clip continued and he answered my question. He presented his thesis on smiling and on dropping worry. (i) You’re worried: can you do something about it? Yes – worry over. (ii) You’re worried: can you do something about it? No – so why worry? Ok, so it’s a little glib, but there are moments in life when something so enormous happens that one’s worries – suddenly put into perspective – loosen, and the removal men come and take away the old fixed mental furniture that has been dragging your lips down at the corners for so long.
I’ve been trying it out, this smiling. Some days I feel as through it’s a smile of hysterical madness and that everyone on the street must notice it’s grafted on. The thing is, though, like everything, it becomes a habit and then there is no grafting required. There is an urban myth that says you can be arrested in Scandinavia for smiling at a stranger. I’ve never been to any of the Scandinavian countries, but surely they can’t all be like Saga Norén in ‘The Bridge’, of whom my nana would have said: ‘Is the skin of her face tight?’ – a lovely expression for someone loath to smile. My sample of one, however – the smiling Scandi-woman who runs my local Nordic Cafe – entirely scuppers that notion.
When you walk into an interview and they smile, or into a doctor’s consulting room and they smile, or to the dentist and they smile, it can help you breathe and calm down. My dentist, a dashingly handsome young man (let’s call him ‘Mr. Darcy’), never smiles. The last time I visited, I had some work to be done and, although I am by no means dental-phobic, I was nervous. I entered, smiling: fake-it-till-you-make-it style. My first non-verbal clue was the unreturned smile from Mr. Darcy – he looked harassed and pained. My second verbal clue was when Mr. Darcy asked me if I wanted to leave it until another day, as he was running behind and having had a really bad morning. I now know that if your dentist tells you he/she is having a bad day, you take them at their word and run for the hills. I mistakenly stayed and his treatment of me confirmed the truth of what he had told me: he was not having a good day. Neither of us left smiling.
Whenever I remember, I set myself the gentle task of a ‘smiling day’. On one such day, last week, I was sitting in the Portrait Gallery (my usual seat under Ian Rankin was not available) and so I was at a high stool facing out onto Queen Street. I wasn’t smiling, instead, staring out of the window in the sort of daze when your eyes lose focus and it takes real effort to bring them back to seeing. Coming back into focus, I realised a dreadlocked backpacker was staring back at me, quite deliberately trying to catch my eye, and, when he did he shot me a 163-carat diamond smile (sold in Geneva yesterday for $33.7 million) – quite the smile! I wanted to get up and run after him, but I just smiled back. What a huge difference it makes to your day when you are the receiver of a hearty, genuine smile for no reason. So maybe it works the other way around too….. free smiles for no reason, give it a go.
And as for laughter, it’s the best friend of the smile, so I hope that Ogden Nash can do better than my dentist and leave you with either a laugh or a smile.
‘The Panther’, by Ogden Nash
“The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,