IN his TCW Defending Freedom article on Friday September 3, Sean Walsh drew attention to the ‘cancellation of the human smile’ thanks to everybody wearing masks. Wherever I go, I still see the majority of people wearing masks, even though they are no longer compulsory. I am usually the only maskless person on the bus or in supermarkets. Just before entering a shop, most potential customers, young and old, get out their masks and put them on. I have even seen quite small children wearing them. And now it is reported that ‘ministers plan stronger guidance on wearing masks amid concern over falling compliance’.
As a result of still having to wear masks, staff in shops no longer offer service with a smile. Because of this, it has started to feel uncomfortably like you are being served by a robot. When nobody is able to smile, there is nothing to cheer you up when you are out and about.
But this whole mask-wearing nonsense, and the lack of smiling that goes with it, doesn’t just wipe the humanity out of human interaction. It actually predisposes to mental and physical illness, as a number of scientific studies have shown.
Many years ago, I wrote a book called Smile Therapy, which took in all the latest research around then into the effects of smiling and laughter, not just on ourselves, but on those around us. I have just dug the book out as its message seems more relevant than ever.
In 1906, a French scientist, Israel Waynbaum, wrote a book called Physionomie Humaine: Son Mecanisme et son Role Social, in which he postulated that facial muscles act as ligatures on the blood vessels and regulate blood flow to the brain. The blood flow in turn influences how we feel. From this, he developed the theory that emotions often follow facial expressions, rather than always preceding them.
When we smile, he believed, the increased flow of blood to the brain is associated with a healthy body and a positive mood. Sad and miserable expressions, by contrast, result in a decreased flow of blood to the brain that can result in physical ill-health.
The different facial muscles that are used for smiling, anger, disgust and so on, all connect to different neurotransmitters in the brain which in turn send chemical messages throughout the body.
The act of smiling, theorised Waynbaum, affects all these brain hormones to their betterment, and helps to keep people well and happy. His book was buried and forgotten for many years but a group of American scientists rediscovered it in the 1980s and decided to put his theories to scientific tests.
They asked some actors to look in turn happy, sad, disgusted and surprised. As each expression flitted over their faces, instruments recorded changes in heart rate, skin temperature and blood pressure.
They found that far-reaching physiological changes accompanied each facial expression, even though the emotions they represented were only simulated. With the negative emotions, all body systems were hyped up and on red alert, but when the actors smiled, heart rate decreased, blood pressure went down, and a state of relaxation ensued.
The results of these experiments showed that smiling and laughter have a vital part to play in the maintenance of health and avoidance of illness.
The therapeutic value of smiling does not just lie with the person who smiles. There is an infectious element to smiling and laughter which can change the mood of those around us as well. People who smile a lot are not just keeping themselves well but helping others. Smiles oil the wheels of social life and offer friendship. When people like each other, they smile. The happier and wider the smile, the more pleased people are to see each other.
It has also been found that smiling is the only universally recognised facial expression and that it can be deduced from a far greater distance than other expressions. It might be difficult to tell, at least from afar, whether somebody is sad, disgusted or angry, but we can always tell when they are smiling. When strangers smile at each other, this means: I come in peace. A smile will immediately put the other person at their ease yet if a somebody approaches with a grim or threatening expression the fear factor ramps up.
Smiling is, after all, the first ‘human’ expression that a baby produces, and parents are always keen not to miss that first smile. It tells you the baby is happy, not in pain and is recognising another face. The usual reaction when a baby smiles is to smile back, which is difficult if you are wearing a mask.
Apart from all this, smiling is a potent beauty treatment. When people smile, only one major facial muscle is used, whereas lots of muscles are needed to twist the face into negative expressions such as those of grief or anger. Smiling keeps people looking younger, while all other expressions are ageing.
If we keep wearing masks, or if a mask mandate is reintroduced (which would not surprise me at all), we may even forget how to smile, and thus will remain strangers to each other, forever distanced.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the fear of Covid, which keeps being stoked up, is exacerbated by mask-wearing obliterating the human, friendly expression of smiling. The less we smile, the more we are likely to become anxious and afraid which in turns leads to succumbing to illness.
Never forget the old song:
Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag
And smile, smile, smile.
It could be the most potent message for our times: never underestimate the impact of a wide, friendly smile and in order to keep smiling, ditch that mask.
Smile Therapy: How Smiling and Laughter can change your life, by Liz Hodgkinson, published by Optima, 1987