I was afraid of my aunt growing up, hiding behind furniture, because her smile was so big. I asked my dad why her smile was so white, so wide. His reply was simple: She smiles because she’s happy to see you. Slowly, I stopped hiding behind furniture when she came to visit. I wanted to see if what my dad told me was true. Was my aunt happy to see me or was a smile the only expression her face knew to do? As I got older, I got over myself (my fear) and saw how infectious her smile was. Her smile made other people smile. Her smile filled people with warmth. It still does to this day.
The science behind smiling backs up what I felt radiating from my aunt growing up. According to psychologist and integrative mental health expert Roseann Capanna-Hodge, "Smiling at another person can have a ripple effect, not only improving your own health but creating well-being in others." The reason why you smile back at that stranger you see on the street? It's hard not to. Smiling is contagious. "When we smile, it triggers a cascade of feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins," says Capanna-Hodge. "Endorphins lower stress levels, reduce pain, and produce feelings of well-being and happiness—which make us just feel good." It's easy to take such a natural gesture for granted, not considering how much of an impact it has on our well-being. I know I did.
As I grew up, I saw my aunt's smile in pictures of me. Little did younger me know, I too had my aunt's big, white smile. At least a version of it. Now that I've grown into it and understand how powerful a smile is, it's my favorite thing about myself. I get all the feels when I smile. It’s like I'm able to take everything and everyone around me in with appreciation. And smiling is the seal, the cherry on top of my appreciation.
But because of my anxiety, it hasn't always been this way. I would dread going to public places on the rare chance someone started a conversation with me or looked my way. I wanted zero attention on me. I had pride in being the uninvolved wallflower. But I wasn’t doing myself any favors by isolating myself. Connection was what I needed to dig myself out of this anxiety hole. And hello? You can be a wallflower and still smile at people. I enjoyed how I felt when I smiled at people I knew, and now, I had to bring that feeling into a new setting.
I got to a point where smiling at people anytime I was anywhere became second nature. I began valuing the power of connection and equating it to my mental health—I like to think I grew as a person because of it.
I began smiling at strangers when I went out in public and noticed how relaxed I was when I got home. In my mind, I was smiling as a way to tell people I was non-threatening, kind, maybe even a cool person to know. Lo and behold, seeing their smile in return eased my own mind; quelling my anxiety. I became confident going places solo. I could smile at a stranger at the grocery store and the incessant buzzing in my head would quiet down. I started traveling to different countries on both solo and group trips. Smiling at strangers made me more confident and safe. It was every kind of reassurance I needed.
I got to a point where smiling at people anytime I was anywhere became second nature. I began valuing the power of connection and equating it to my mental health—I like to think I grew as a person because of it. I’m more inclined to start conversations with people I meet in a checkout line, a security guard who’s been on duty for the last eight hours, or another dog-parent who wants to gab about their pup.
Then the pandemic hit. Masks took that rich feeling away. Masks took smiles away, period. "We’re missing out on those all-important facial expressions and, of course, smiles that make us feel good when we give them and they are returned,” Capanna-Hodge explains. When I smile, I can feel the warmth as my body relaxes, but I can't see anyone smiling back with masks on. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my smile until the pandemic swept throughout society and told me I couldn’t use it anymore. I miss that simple connection with a stranger. Learning how to ease my anxiety in public spaces without using my smile has been a huge learning curve for me. Something I’m still figuring out how to do.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll always be figuring out new ways to quell my anxiety and live life as presently and fully as possible. I forgot how much I enjoy smiling at people and having people smile at me. But the pandemic and the masks that came with it are only minor snags in the greater scheme of my mental wellbeing. I discovered how to use the power of smiling before. I can do it again.