There’s a nasty internet meme that’s been around for a while that characterizes the look on someone’s face when they’re relaxed or resting. While the label ‘Resting Bitch Face’ (RBF) has an obvious and horribly offensive sexist tilt, scientists using facial recognition technology confirm that it’s equally present regardless of gender.
The software they used compiles 500 points on the face to analyze facial expression and detect the emotions that are being communicated. The one that’s communicated most often with RBF? Contempt.
While it’s nice to have empirical confirmation, it doesn’t take a scientist to notice that the faces of just about everybody you encounter are expressing something far from happiness.
Why is everyone so miserable?
There’s no shortage of people who are quick to explain that our collective gloom is in response to the horrible world in which we live. Terrorism, climate change, raging partisanship, rising xenophobia. And now let’s throw in coronavirus just for fun!
It’s easy to conclude that anybody who isn’t miserable or frightened is either not paying attention or too dumb to realize what’s going on.
And yet there are some very smart, very attentive people who refuse to play along.
I’ve recently met a new friend, Michael Ray. He lives in Louisville and life hasn’t exactly been handed to him on a silver spoon. He suffered the death of a child, a divorce and his 21-year-old daughter, Maddie, has Down Syndrome and has been non-verbal her entire life.
It would be so easy to wallow in self-pity.
While Maddie’s never been able to speak the words, “I love you,” that doesn’t stop her from letting Michael know how she’s feeling. The smile that radiates from her face lights up everything in a way that mere words could never convey.
So Michael took his cue from her smile and started the Smile Project Louisville. Now his mission is to change attitudes and behaviors by spreading love through smiling. He says, “It's the simplicity of a smile, it doesn't cost anything."
My late Mother never seemed to get the memo either.
Despite painful and embarrassing skin problems, blindness and Parkinson’s Disease, you’d never see her without a smile on her face. That joyful expression, however, was a choice. Just as it is for all of us.
Mom decided to be happy. And so she was. She didn’t wait around hoping for happiness to arrive, she went looking for it, created it, plucked it out of thin air. And then she drank it up, delighted in it, splashed around in it and shared it with those who were lucky enough to be around her.
While there was (and always will be) plenty of ugliness around, she deliberately chose to see the joy and the beauty instead. Whether it was a bird at her feeder, a new flower blooming in her garden or the notes of some music that delighted her, she consciously chose to look for and see only those things that she wanted to see.
There are plenty who would call this refusal to face reality naïve or stubborn. But our reality is made up of what we choose to see regardless of what we’re looking at.
Take Mother Teresa for example. Here was a woman who gave up everything to spend her entire life serving the dregs of humanity in the most horrible surroundings. But I dare you to find a picture in which she’s not smiling or her eyes aren’t glowing with some mysterious inner radiance that I’d love to know more about.
Nelson Mandela’s another one who didn’t get the memo. He spent 27 years in prison and then, when he got out, worked hand-in-hand with the people who put him there to fix what was broken in his country. Instead of seeking revenge, he formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds of apartheid. Just try to find a picture of him when he’s not smiling.
If you’re still not convinced, search for a photo of the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis that doesn’t just glow with happiness.
I always wonder why the pictures we see of Jesus have him looking so glum. I never got to meet Him in person but I’ve got to believe that He, just like His buddies the Buddha, Mohammed and all the other great teachers were a riot to hang out with. Laughing, joking, smiling all the time. And making those around them feel so darn good!
Imagine trying to take a selfie with the Buddha. He’d probably be laughing so hard you couldn’t hold the phone still. And I bet Jesus and Confucius would have photobombed it if they’d been close by.
They created their own realities by focusing on the joy they found around them. And that joy radiates from the faces of everyone who also finds joy in their world. It comes out through the eyes. It radiates from the smile. It positively glows through the skin.
But let’s get back to that resting face.
Our faces have no choice but to reflect what’s going on inside. Try it yourself. Think of something that makes you really happy and see if the corners of your mouth don’t start to turn up, even just a little.
So what’s going on inside you? What are you choosing as your reality? What are the emotions you’re feeling when you’re simply at rest? What will the rest of us see reflected in your eyes and on your face?
Is it contempt? Or is it contentment?