On Smiling


I was once thrown out of a mental hospital for depressing the other patients.


Sometimes by coincidence you end up reading two books of a similar theme. Or perhaps, because you read the first one, you noticed corresponding themes in the next one that might have otherwise washed right over you.

Last week I read two books:

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr, an Australian YA novel, published 1996.

Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich.

This is an American polemic about the incessant pressure to display a positive attitude, and the detrimental effect this requirement can have on the seriously ill, the job-seeking and on the entire world economy. I first heard about this book because of an author interview with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand: The Cult of Cheerfulness. A fascinating listen. (Two astute and articulate older women in one interview. What more could you ask for?)

The theme of unreasonable positivity was echoed in the novel by Wendy Orr. Peeling The Onion, is about a 17 year old girl who is recovering from a car-crash, which wasn’t her fault. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another driver failed to give way, and she was ‘lucky’ not to break her neck. Although she will be permanently impaired, everyone keeps telling her how lucky she is to be alive. This, quite rightly, gets on her wick.

Jenny comes around with a stack of books from her mum: self-healing; do it yourself miracles. I flip through the first one: meditation; understanding your motives for not being well – motives? What kind of motive could you have for pain?

‘Everything that happens, happens for a reason,’ I read. ‘Nothing is an accident’.

So what the hell would you call it?

pp 117-118

Speaking of self-help books, The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, was not published until 2006, but Wendy Orr must have seen this wave of Australian self-help positivity coming, from as far back as the mid-nineties as she was writing.

I find these themes really interesting. To what extent should anyone be grateful for what they have? Perhaps one role of prayer (whether you’re religious or not) is to count ‘blessings’ before they evaporate. (Because all blessings are ephemeral – as life itself.) But I’ve always been wary of what I say to someone who has had a spectacular stroke of misfortune. I try not to say ‘Well, it could have been worse.’ There are a whole list of ways in which something could have been worse. ‘You could be dead, for instance’.

Well, that’s never helpful, is it. And who says death is the very worst outcome? Don’t know until you try it. I suspect there are fates worse than death.

Another interesting RNZ interview: Richard Wiseman, author of 59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot.

That one’s next on my non-fiction reading list.


Do you know what your face looks like when you’re thinking of nothing at all? Has anyone ever told you?

I’ve been told.

I’ve done several teacher training courses, where trainees are critiqued on everything from posture and enunciation to eye-brow raising, dress sense and whiteboard legibility. So, I have been told that when I’m deep in thought – and feeling neither happy nor sad – I look ‘bored’. This, apparently, is a bad thing and needs to be remedied.

Use a slight smile instead of a poker face. You’ll get further in this life. But if anyone else tells me it’s easier to smile than to look bored, I’ll slap them upside the head. I can tell you for a fact, it takes no effort whatsoever to look bored. Smiling is work. I have also done my time in the service industry, and I remember sore facial muscles after a long hard day of friendly customer service. I always wanted a job where I didn’t have to smile like a vacant fool. (Teaching, alas, is not one of those jobs. I remember sore smiling muscles after parent-teacher interview evenings.)

But, fortunately for me, my first boss felt the same way I did about this smiling matter, which may well be how I got a job in the first place.

My opinion is this: If a teacher strolls about the school grounds smiling, students know the exact moment the teacher’s mood turns. And moods do turn. Better to look permanently neutral and express emotion via words and other body language than to rely entirely upon the facial expression. You don’t want your most difficult high school class to know that exact moment you got angry. You don’t want them to know what sets you off.

Surely that applies in any work place. As much as I wish I were one of those fortunate people with naturally upturned lips, I’ll probably develop a furrowed brow and the permanent stink-eye as I age disgracefully. Thank god for the Barbara Ehrenreichs of this world.

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

– Kahlil Gibran

Though I’m far from jolly, I suppose I feel, as I suspect many people do, that they have both had less than their due, but more than they deserve, and always, in my case, a lot of luck. These would nowadays, I suppose, be called ‘positive feelings’, the sort one is supposed to try and generate in ‘the battle against cancer’.

– Alan Bennett, Ups and Downs, Untold Stories

Related Links: Can You Imagine Cancer Away? from CNN Health; More Bad News For The Depressed from The Awl, The Optimism Bias from Time; Thoughts On Living With An Optimist from Persephone Magazine; Are You Unhappy With Your Life? Try Being More Crabby from Jezebel.

“Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.”

— Jane Austen


Don’t feel like smiling? If you have a penis, that’s okay. – Sneaky Sexism from Persephone Magazine

The Neuroscience of Looking on the Bright Side from SA