From Behind a Mask

When you think about it, a smile is a funny thing. Why would turning up the corners of your mouth and showing your front teeth lift moods and relieve stress? But this flexing of mouth muscles works. Smiling, according to research cited by Ron Gutman in Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, brings more pleasure to the brain than even chocolate.

Smiling, I found on tough teaching days, made me and my students feel better. And since smiles prompt smiles, students smiled back at me, which made us all feel even better. I’ve got to admit that often I forced my smiles. But even fake smiles can trick your brain into thinking you are happy. We’ve long known that the brain controls the body. But we’re also learning how much the body controls the brain. And smiles, even fake ones, release feel-good neurotransmitters that help teachers teach and students learn.

And now mouths are masked.

“How can I start the school year,” a young teacher asked me, “when I can’t even smile?”

The good news is that she can. There’s a smile a mask can’t cover—well, at least not the whole smile. A Duchenne smile does more than lift the corners of the mouth. It rises higher on the face and above the borders of a mask, lifting the check bones and crinkling into crows’ feet around the eyes. And though this is the smile of true enjoyment, it too, scientists have found, can be faked until it is genuine.

Just down the road at the school where I taught before I retired, students are beginning school. And in front of them are masked teachers, my former colleagues. I know these teachers, worried as they are about this school year, don’t feel like smiling. But I know they will. It’s what teachers do—whatever it takes to get brain neurons firing. It will just take a bigger smile this year.

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