Hurriedly, I pushed the small buggy through the front of the store. “Carrots, onions, milk, creamer, cards. Carrots, onions, milk, creamer, cards.” Repeating my list like a mantra, I knew I was at risk of forgetting two of the items, as I had failed to make a list.
“Carrots, onions …”
Looking up, I saw a woman a little older than I. She smiled. It surprised me.
It surprised me that a human being smiled at me in the grocery store. What has happened that I am surprised by a smile? This is Southern Appalachia. Without generalizing, we Appalachians smile. Don’t we?
I am not the shopper in my household. My husband doesn’t mind the task and is far swifter in his efforts than I am. Still, anytime I’ve run into a store — pharmacy, general, grocery — I have been hard pressed to find someone, anyone, to smile at me. Sadly, it has been so long since I’ve been greeted by a smile that a friendly woman jarred me with her grin.
As I processed my surprise, I reached the fruit. I stopped, turned around, went back to her and said, “I know this is weird for a perfect stranger to say, but … thank you. Your smile caught me off guard. I appreciate it so much.” She commented that it had been quite some time since someone smiled at her, too. “Have a great day,” I replied. “You, too!” I heard her call out. Moments later, a younger man of a different ethnic group smiled widely at me as I located the carrots!
Louis Armstrong’s voice rings in my ears: “Keep on smiling, and the whole world smiles with you.”
A friend of mine who lives in an urban area has a little different take. Purposefully, people avoid smiling, much less eye contact, because it likely invites unwelcome attention. I remember living in a major metro area. Fear of the other was prevalent. Gated communities, limited transit systems and racially divided communities were a reality then and now. That separation and sadness spills outward to more rural communities and even to our soulful Appalachia.
Our bodies are made to create a positive feedback loop by the act of smiling. When exercised in the shape of a smile — even if merely held in place by a pencil — the zygomaticus major and orbicularis oculi muscles fire off signals to the brain that create the sensation of reward. This continues a loop of happiness from a rush of endorphins.
Some folks complain about fake smiles. Being false is a plague upon us. But the goodness of a smile is that, even when it is forced, it creates the perception of happiness.
When I smile at you, it signals to your brain a response of more happy endorphins. Together, we create a loop of happy hormones for each other. Smiling is healthy — for our community, for neighbors, for co-workers, for strangers, for our very selves. Smiling reduces anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate. Smiling enhances a sense of well-being.
Surprise someone! Smile!