A Word for the Year

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” – Mother Teresa

As we faced another new year, my wife shared an “anti-resolution” idea with me. Instead of making the same
half dozen commitments that we broke last February, what about one word for the year; one word that you want to embrace. Sure, it could be “exercise” or “nutrition”, but feel free to let go of the annual “diet plan.” Here are a few other ideas: generosity, serve, grace, inspire, community, imagine, reinvention, explore, or courage.

I recently read about two researchers at M.I.T. who had developed an algorithm that enables a robot to instantaneously predict human emotions and even actions to an accuracy of 93%, relying on facial expressions, verbal tone and past behaviors. It is still extremely limited regarding the complexity of possible actions from an individual; it made me realize that human emotions may not be as unpredictable as many of us think.

However, the challenge isn’t just about predicting the emotions of others, it is often about predicting our own. That said, some of us know the challenge of learning to manage our emotions. In other words, we may know that certain situations, or even people predictably stir feelings of anger in us, but avoidance may not always be an option (e.g. your boss isn’t going anywhere, and you need to keep your job.) Thus, we strive to learn how to manage our emotions.

However, managing isn’t the same as suppressing. In her book, The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild
studied those who do “emotional labor .” In her study of flight attendants, she found that by learning “deep acting,” they could produce the desired outward emotional responses to airline passengers. At the same time, they were required to learn how to suppress negative emotions. The problem for many of these “emotional laborers” came in their off hours, when they struggled to stop “acting” and get back in touch with their true feelings.

Of course, I’m not advocating that everyone should act on every emotion as it comes. I can’t imagine the psychological and spiritual wounds we would all inflict on one another. Instead, I think it’s best that we try not to live out an emotional script.

Given all that, my next suggestion may seem completely incongruous. Specifically, that I also ascribe to the
“fake it till you make it” theory when it comes to my emotions (i.e. our bodies can influence our emotional
state.)

Psychologists and neuroscientists agree that smiling and laughter generate what most of us would agree are positive benefits. As one author put it, “The notorious party animals dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin start whooping it up when you smile. And a bonus: those endorphins serve as natural pain relievers and act as the body’s own opiates.”

Laughter lights up the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for long-term memory. So, for those of us concerned about memory loss in the future, laughter may turn out to be one of the best medicines.

Note, I am not suggesting that smiling and laughter would cure the mild depression I’ve lived with most of my life, or anyone else’s. I believe such mental health matters aren’t as simple as “smile more” or “don’t worry, be happy.” Nor am I suggesting that laughing will prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia. Though, there are some studies about its benefits.

Someone once said, “laughter is a form of worship. It’s our soul’s way of saying, ‘I surrender to being human.” As for my word for the year, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m going with smile.

 

Blessings,

Pastor Kelly 

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