Save a life by smiling

She’s stood there, hands clasped together, in a pink frilly dress. She’s hoping it comes true.

In the white speech bubble above her head it says “smile and the world smiles with you!”

This a picture from 1952 in my parent’s bathroom. As a child, I’d see it and be quite puzzled. How can that be true? As an adult, I see it and think, pffffft. That sweet little girl knows nothing of the world.

Close your eyes and smile. Go on. I’ll give you a moment.

While you were doing that, there was probably a woman being hit by a lorry. Or a man being murdered. Or a child dying of cancer. Or a family being worn down by the ache of starvation.

There’s also someone who, while you were busy smiling, was smiling too. Perhaps they were kissing a loved one. Or enjoying a dinner with close friends. Or watching their child try to walk for the first time. Or they were sat on a beach, watching the waves massage the shore.

The little girl in the pink frilly dress was only half right. Smile and some of the world is smiling with you. The other half is probably suffering.

Nevertheless, smiles are interesting, powerful things.

Dale Carnegie, who wrote How to Make Friends and Influence People says that smiling is one of the best ways to make a good impression. “Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.’”

In The Definitive Book of Body Language, the first of six secrets of attractive body language is, “have an animated face and make smiling a part of your regular repertoire. Make sure you flash your teeth.”

Basically, add a smile to any human interaction and you change that situation for the better.

Today I was at a graduation ceremony. Hundreds of people received their degrees. There were smiles. Many of them. Men. Women. Children. All doing their best to outsmile one another. On the train home this evening, I was thinking about smiling and smiles and all their different meanings. Usually on trains, I like to look out the window at the countryside flashing by. I find it oddly soothing. But it was dark and I couldn’t see out. So I made a list of sixteen types of smile.

THE LOVE SMILE. This is the one reserved for someone you love. It’s like a secret handshake. And when you’re in it, nothing else matters.

THE OLD FRIEND SMILE. You’re meeting someone you haven’t seen for a long time. They walk in. You embrace. You look at each other. Your smile says, “I missed you.”

THE FAKE SMILE. We use this when we know we should smile, but don’t feel like it. We think nobody can see it’s insincerity, but we’re fooling ourselves.

THE SMUG SMILE. You know something they don’t. And they know that you know something they don’t. They just don’t know what it is.

THE PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE SMILE. If you had a sibling growing up, you know this one. Your sister started drawing on the walls. You joined in too. But she told on you. And she knows you won’t implicate her in the crime. Because she has your favourite toy. And she’ll break it. This smile says “I have the power. I own you.”

THE REMINISCENT SMILE. You’re with a group of friends, talking about college, or that time they went on a night out and saved a woman’s life. After the lively back-and-forth of anecdotes ends, you all fall silent and savour the memories.

THE FACE ACHE. You laugh so hard that your face just hurts. Right in your cheeks. But you can’t help it. It’s painful to continue, but it’s even more uncomfortable to hold it in.

THE LITTLE SMILE. When you arrive home, or step foot in a place you really love. It lasts only a moment. But it is a moment that fills you with a sense of tranquillity.

THE VICTORY SMILE. You got the job. You closed the deal. Some smiles are for life’s little victories. This one is for the big wins and the landmarks.

THE SISYPHEAN SMILE. Have you ever tried to cheer someone up? They’re crying and you’re doing all you can to bring a smile to their face. Finally, you strike a chord, and for a moment, the sadness fades and the smile appears. But just for a moment. They remember the cause of their pain and the smile you worked so hard for is lost. The sadness emerges again.

THE SLEEPY SMILE. You wake to gentle sunlight, the aroma of fresh coffee and the news that a bacon sandwich is on the bedside table. The stuff of dreams.

THE SURRENDER SMILE. It can get no worse. Everything has been taken from you. You are broken. You have nothing left. You have no more tears and no more screams left to expel. All you can do is smile at how ridiculous this thing called life can be.

THE PSYCHOTIC SMILE. You have a friend who’s really into cheese. Or obsessed about a musician. One mention of their “thing”, and they halt what they’re doing. You watch their face transform. Whatever expression was their before is replaced with a wide, manic grin. It’s unsettling.

THE STRANGER SMILE. Not to be confused with THE FAKE SMILE. I use this smile when I’m walking the dog in the country and I see an elderly couple. It’s sincere. It’s warm. It makes them feel comfortable. I hope.

THE MALICIOUS SMILE. Someone you hate has just failed. Your rival is collapsing and burning. When we take pleasure in the misfortunes and suffering of others, this one crosses our face and blackens our heart.

THE LONELY SMILE. The smile you have when no one is looking. When you are alone with your troubles, your fears, your worries, your anxiety. Or when you are thinking of the people around you and the richness of the world.

This time last year, I finished Shantaram. I know this because when I finish a book I write the date on the back page.

There are two things that I carry with me from that story. Firstly, how integral suffering is in our lives. I can’t quite explain why yet. It’s a concept too big and complex for me to grasp right now. As the author, Gregory David Roberts wrote, “anything that can be put in a nutshell should remain there.” Suffering and it’s meaning can not be distilled so handily.

Secondly, I learnt the power of a smile.

Upon arriving in Bombay, Lin is greeted by an overly enthusiastic taxi driver named Prabaker. Lin says:

“When I got to know him well enough, when I began to cherish his friendship, I discovered that Prabaker believed with the whole of his heart that his smile made a difference, in people’s hearts and in the world. He was right, of course, but it took me a long time to understand that truth, and to accept it.”

Smiles are interesting, powerful things.

They can bring someone down from the edge of the roof, or transform our dullest days into one of our brightest moments.

Their impact is exponentially more than their cost, and if we are brave enough to give them, they can change the lives of those who receive them in ways we cannot even imagine.

That stranger you see walking towards you in the street? He may be on his way to commit suicide. Your smile may, quite literally, save his life. Be brave. Take a chance. Smile.