Before we had Jim Gaffigan, Eye of the Tiber, and Catholic Memes, we had St. Teresa of Avila. She is often credited as quipping,
“God save us from gloomy saints.”
This brilliant, charming, and quick witted 16th century Spanish nun knew by nature and grace what social scientists, neurologists, and psychologists today spend incalculable resources studying: Smiling matters.
Smiling matters to the individual.
There is something about the mere decision to smile that may have a very real effect on you. One behavioral psychologist, Sarah Stevenson, boiled down some of the facial feedback research. She said, “each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.”
Science suggests that smiling has the potential to chemically alter a person’s mood.
By way of a safe and effective self-administered dose of natural dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, we can access a truly holistic medicine. In our culture of self-help books and guru-endorsed regimens, perhaps we too quickly overlook one of the most simple and perennial antidotes to gloom.
Of course, a smile will not cure clinical depression or mitigate a mood disorder. And, further, there is some research to suggest that fake smiles may in fact complicate the results. But, what if the conscious and virtuous practice of smiling becomes the small act of hope that God uses to lift us out of ourselves and unnecessary suffering? What if we choose to smile just in gratitude that God has given us the ability to do so? And what if that changes us in the process?
This is important to us, would-be saints, because in this valley of tears that we call the human condition, our sense of wellbeing is essential to our capacity to practice virtue in the face of inevitable suffering.
Smiling also matters in our Christian mission of evangelization.
Each of us, by virtue of our Baptism is called to be a priest, prophet, and king. Though our mission fields vary, it is universally true that we are meant to have a positive impact on those around us. Science also suggests that a simple smile is often a surprisingly powerful first step in that regard.
A recent study reported by the National Institutes of Health from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used various bio-feedback data from a smile study to find that when people observe “genuine smiles” in other people it “tended to buffer the effects of stress” and “strengthen social bonds between people.”
For those of us in the mission field (all of us), that means our delivery of the Good News may be most effective when accompanied by a real smile, not a scoul or smirk. Even as we pick up our crosses to follow our Savior, we have the opportunity to use a smile as our sign of “rejoicing in our sufferings” because it can communicate the kind of hope that transcends and transforms.
Back to the saints. . .
Another Teresa agrees with this theory half a millennia after the first Teresa. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta taught, “every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person” and “peace begins with a smile.”
Indeed, God save us from gloomy saints. St. Teresa of Avila and St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!