I started out the door for a typical run.
l hadn’t gone 20 feet before I found myself approaching a group of about 4 people moving toward me. They were walking straight across — like a human wall — blocking the entire (fairly wide) sidewalk. I watched to see who would nudge over to make space for me, but no one did…
Are you kidding? There’s plenty of space!
I ran into the street to go around them, grumbling internally about the inconvenience. And I noticed something…
I noticed that I really didn’t want to go on my run anymore. My energy was gone. Part of me started speaking up: Go home. You haven’t gone that far yet… just turn around and go home.
I knew that I didn’t want to give up for the day, but this run was going to be miserable if I didn’t do something.
So I faked a smile.
I didn’t feel like smiling — and I probably looked like Batman’s The Joker, with my pasted-on ridiculous face as I kept running…
But even though it was fake, I was surprised by how much it changed things. I felt more energy. A part of me actually felt excited now to continue my run. And at the end of the run, my stats indicated that my pace overall had been slightly faster than normal.
It was a total change from the way things had started out… putting a stop to the frustrated rumination and replacing it with a smile — albeit a fake one — actually altered the outcomes.
The Fake Laugh
And laughter prepares. It arms you for incoming challenges and stress.
What’s more, your brain doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between externally-induced laughter and internally-induced simulated laughter.
It’s the same thing with smiling:
When people smile, regardless of whether it’s feeling-induced or not, they create for themselves a more positive experience.
The behavior — the action — can be the origin of a more positive trajectory, rather than waiting for things to work out the other way around. It’s great when external stimuli surprise us with moments of organic joy — but in the absence of those things, we can initiate a process that leads to many of the same outcomes.
But it’s not only about your direct impact on that moment…
That “Joker Run” didn’t only result in a change to my health and mentality for that day…
An Alternate Universe
As we live, we filter out more information than we absorb. We have to.
Schizophrenia is (in part) the inability to perform this filtering. In other words, people with schizophrenia are more aware of the reality around them than those who don’t live with the disorder.
(click below to listen to a brief audio clip related to this subject.)
That filtering serves a purpose: it reinforces what matters. “What matters,” in this sense, isn’t referring to anything objective or socially imposed. “What matters” is whatever stuff doesn’t get filtered out.
Read that again:
As your attention filters out information, the things that pass through that filter tell your brain — by the mere fact that they passed through — that they matter more than anything else.
Wherever your attention goes tells you what matters to you. Which means that you’re creating your own sense of purpose in existence in these small moments when you do or don’t filter out certain stimuli. And most of that filtering is not consciously done.
In the example of my run, the physical adjustment (choosing to smile) changed the ingoing signals, which changed where my attention went, which led my brain to a completely different allocation of resources.
That one moment reshaped my reality in every way.
And, thanks to the Pareto Curve, that one moment makes it more likely that I’ll have more moments like it, on an exponentially self-reinforcing scale.
Had I instead allowed my attention to dwell in a state of bitterness, that too would have acted as a cornerstone in reshaping my long-term reality in an exponentially self-reinforcing way — but in the other direction.
Each moment shapes your inner world, and your inner world is the reality in which your future self lives. What’s more, physical behaviors send signals to your central nervous system that tell it things about what’s going on in this moment. Your brain interprets those signals in a way that alters how you see and engage with the moment. And the cycle continues…
What ‘Faking It’ Isn’t
The fake smile/laugh has a lot less to do with forcing a positive outlook and a lot more to do with refusing to step into bitterness. Fake expressions can help in difficult moments by hacking your system to give a tiny added jolt of embodied motivation — but it’s not a cure-all, and it doesn’t solve every problem life brings.
What it does do is help you move away from resentment (which would destroy you faster than any difficulty or any other human ever could).
This tactic is useful to keep you moving in the direction that you ultimately want to go — but, of course, it’s only one tool among many important elements and choices as you move through life.
…But for those small moments, it can help us reset, re-center, and look up from a place of strength.
Using fake smiles or laughter isn’t the right response for every situation.
But sometimes, it helps.
Thanks for reading!
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