There is a piece of self-help advice that is supposedly based on Science, about how to “beat the blues” and feel happier. The advice is to put a pen or pencil between your teeth. The theory goes, that this pulls your mouth in the same ways as smiling does and because we associate smiling with happiness, the act of thus “smiling” triggers happiness associations in the brain, and we feel happier as a result.
I don’t know how that works for others. Maybe it does. But for me, it doesn’t.
A friend on twitter today said they had forgotten how good it feels to smile, and it’s true: smiling does feel good when there’s a reason to smile, and when I feel happy. And I started to reply based on that, but then thought of all the times that smiling doesn’t feel good.
Depression for me is an ever-present thing, though at times my mental health is better and it recedes into the background, and at times it is upfront and on the attack. When I am in the throes of a depression episode, smiling can feel physically painful and unpleasant. It becomes more of a grimace. Either that, or a spontaneous smile is more likely to be “wry” or “resigned” (even when the cause is soemthing that should be “happy”).
Smiling is also a form of self-defence: it’s a mask that I feel compelled to put on because other people expect it. I smile for them, to keep their concern at bay (because the concern often feels threatening or overbearing) or to make them do what I need. As soon as it is safe, I sink back into my solemn face (which, let’s face it, is my natural “bitchy resting face” that I have even when not depressed) and encourage people to leave me alone.
When I smile “on purpose”, it is a strain and feels physically and emotionally awkward. When I’m depressed, it is not just awkward, but also physically painful.
The people who spread tips like the one I opened this piece with, are ignorant of the diversity of human experience, and in particular, of the real differences between the brains of “healthy” people versus those who suffer from mental health issues. Even if I believed in the action-association-emotion link, for me the forced smile of a pen in my mouth would not link to feeling happy: it links to feeling pressured, awkward and strained. (Not to mention, holding a pen in my mouth feels ridiculous and silly anyway, which for a socially awkward and neurotic type like me is not a good thing!)
But when I have a reason to smile – oh, how wonderful! Sometimes, I smile so broadly it’s painful anyway, but in those smiles, oh, Lord, it’s worth it! Because it reminds me that I had forgotten how good it feels to smile.