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The Science of smiling

I was only a child when I read an American newspaper that changed my life. I can’t remember the name of the publication, but I remember the name of the author whose article I read: Kaukab Siddique.

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I also remember the content of the article. “Whenever we looked at his face,” he quoted the companions of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), “he was smiling.”

What!

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My religious teachers never taught me this. And as a child I had the most variegated set of teachers – from Sufi to Izala.

Let me ask you this question, has any Nigerian scholar ever told you that the Prophet smiled regularly? I doubt it!

Scholars themselves didn’t smile! All they did was to whip us. We took lessons in the ever presence of a whip – as the teachers brandished it wherever they went.

But the Prophet smiled!

When we’re happy, we naturally smile. But research has shown that the opposite is also true. Smiling also makes us happy. This means, if you are sad and you smile, you would become happy.

The evidence for this was the research conducted by psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman.

Out of 169 participants, half of them were asked to smile, and then they were subjected to stressful tasks while the researchers monitor their heart rates and stress levels.

Results showed that those who were asked to smile recorded lower heart rate and less stress than others. The bigger the smile the more the effect.

Surprisingly, even those who were not asked to smile but were forced to smile by the placement of chopsticks in their mouth finished the tasks feeling more content and less stressed than the group with neutral expression.

Sarah Pressman (one of the researchers) said, “The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you ‘grin and bear it’ psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!”

Now, we understand that smiling makes the smiler happy. But why would Prophet Muhammad say a “smile is charity?”

Here’s the reason:

“In addition to lifting mood and reducing stress,” Andrew Merle wrote for the Huffington Post, “other research has shown that people who smile are thought to be more friendly and likeable, and smiling actually makes those around you cheerier as well.”

Smiling makes other people happy! That’s why it’s charity.

How does this happen?

Here’s one explanation:

“When our smiling muscles contract, they fire a signal back to the brain, stimulating our reward system, and further increasing our level of happy hormones, or endorphins. In short, when our brain feels happy, we smile; when we smile, our brain feels happier.” – British Council Voices Magazine.

This chapter promises to discuss one of the three things the Prophet did to raise well-adjusted children.  But what does smiling have to do with child upbringing? Three things.

Remember the study that says smiling makes other people happy? Don’t you want to make your children happy?

Two, smiling also reduces stress and when you smile at your children, they smile back, reducing their own stress.

This is important because stress has a devastating effect on children. In his book, “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough reports studies on adversity and how childhood stress can harm people for life.

Three, smiling makes you look more friendly, therefore, more approachable, accessible. Every parent wants his child to confide in them. If you smile they are more likely to do that. If you don’t, they will confide in others , including strangers.

One question that a student once asked me and made me proud was: “Sir, why are you always smiling?”

Before that observation, I didn’t know that I was always smiling. That was then. Now I struggle to smile because of the many challenges and distractions of life.

But that’s not an excuse. I hope that from now on, all of us will smile more with our children.

This is because the Prophet was more cheerful when he was with children. In fact, the children around him reported that, “when we looked at him, he was always smiling.” And they flocked to him.

You should smile even for selfish reasons, because people like you when you do. My mother once gushingly told me about a politician they called “Mai Dariya” (the one who smiles – on his campaign posters)

As a non Sufi, one poster of Sheikh Ibrahim Nyass lingers in my memory: the one where he was wearing glasses and beaming.

All in all, smiling is a gift to family, the community and ourselves.

 This column is a chapter from my book: “The Social Science of Muhammad (P)”

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