Nothing can piss you off like someone telling you to smile. You’re already soldiering through a rough day. You got out of bed. You came to work. You even took a shower first.
You feel like shit. And you even have reasons. But you’re here. You showed up. That’s awesome. Some days, that’s enough.
You’re not whining to all your coworkers about your company’s $20 million budget shortfall. You’re coming up with ideas. You’re trying to be part of the solution, even while others indulge in public meltdowns. You’re keeping it together. And yet that’s not enough for the random stranger who sees you on the sidewalk. Your tired eyes just won’t do.
Smile, he says. Maybe he even adds something like, “It can’t be that bad.” He wants you to expend additional energy on contorting your face into some shape that makes him feel good.
The random strangers who tell you to smile can’t see inside your head. They probably wouldn’t bother to look if they could.
Some of us understand the difference between looking happy and feeling happy. The two don’t always share notes. Someone who doesn’t look happy might be feeling just fine, or the opposite. They don’t need someone else sweeping in to tell them how to display their feelings.
My university planned a student appreciation celebration last spring. During finals week. Nobody came. They paid a DJ to blast loud music right outside the library for two hours. You know, so students who wanted to study couldn’t. See, appreciation.
This party was my institution’s way of telling everyone to smile. It can’t be that bad. Pizza makes everything better. Especially when your tuition money pays for it, instead of a chair that works.
Our administrators spent hundreds of dollars on appetizers, ice cream, and cotton candy that got thrown away. The school mascot handed out t-shirts with smiley faces on them. Yes, the school used our students’ tuition to print a stupid t-shirt that nobody has worn since.
Our top administrators dropped in for a little while. They mainly stood around smiling at each other for fifteen minutes, then went back to their air-conditioned offices.
These are the kind of happy people who make the rest of us more cynical. The kind who drain our time, money, energy, and emotional manna to make themselves look good. The kind who throw a parade outside your apartment at 7 am. Well, I’m done with parades. So are you, I think.
My spouse has to remind me to smile in every photo. You should see our wedding album.
People ask me, “Are you okay? Are you happy?” All because I don’t know how to smile in a photo. Welcome to the spectrum.
Researchers have found that fake smiles use different facial muscles and neurons compared to real, spontaneous ones. Don’t believe me? Google it. Anyone on the spectrum struggles on this front.
New wisdom says forcing yourself to smile might release more dopamine in your brain. You’re welcome to try. But you might better spend your energy on something that improves your situation.
You know what makes some people happy? A long walk in the woods. Alone. A couple of hours surfing the web in a coffeeshop. Some time at the gym. A good night’s sleep. A quiet breakfast. A tuition refund.
The most selfish people in the world always seem to be the ones telling everyone else to smile. They’re the ones planning the parties and the parades nobody wants to go to. The ones curating an impossible life on Instagram. The ones promoting their self-help seminar.
They’re trying to brand happiness.
But you can’t. It comes in too many shapes. Sometimes it’s not even recognizable. Some of us may never achieve the look of conventional happiness the way it’s promoted everywhere.
Some of us can’t smile on cue. Large crowds make us anxious. Small talk bores us. We’d rather be doing something.
You know what makes me happy? Expressing my emotions, however I feel like in the moment. Not letting others dictate what’s appropriate.
That feels good.
Sure, we can’t tell jokes at funerals. We can’t exactly say the first thing that breezes into our heads at our boss’s wedding. But we can sure as hell stop pretending to feel things we don’t, just to please someone we don’t really care about, who has never done anything for us.
These people don’t deserve your smile. Not even the fake one.
Go ahead and own your shape of happiness. Roll your eyes. Smirk. Do your weird laugh after you finally understand that joke someone made last week. Make your sarcastic remarks, if they make you feel better. If they buy you some time. Don’t feel guilty. It’s all you’ve got.