Personal reflections · Psychology and mental illness

When the Heart Forces a Smile

This post was originally published October 5, 2012. For an update on how I feel about Christianity now, see the post “When God Spoke to Me.” This is part of the archive restoration project

From a young age, my mom taught me to force a smile when I don’t feel like it. She explained in simple terms, “If you smile, messages of happiness are sent to your brain even if you don’t feel happy, and things don’t seem so bad.” I didn’t believe her then, but over the years I have picked up the habit of forcing myself to smile when I’m tempted to get depressed or stressed or angry about something. Smiling really does brighten my mood, even if the smile is the only thing I have changed about my situation.

Last Monday I was worshiping with my church family and getting into the music and singing with all my strength when God told me something: The heart can force a smile. See, for the past couple of weeks, I had been following God closely in every decision, but had trouble obeying when I was commanded to be happy. “Infinite One,” I’d prayed many times in the past days, “how can I be happy on command?”

I prayed for reasons to be happy. And I was given them, and I was grateful. Yet depression kept seeping in.

When a businessman tells his secretary to do something she doesn’t want to do, she can force a smile. It’s a job, she tells herself, and sets aside her own plans to run his errand. He knows he can trust his secretary because she is able to be cheerfully obedient and reliably competent. The difference, though, is the secretary can bury her true thoughts while pretending to serve her employer.

God doesn’t put up with that. He knows my heart, he knows every little scar in my past, and is familiar with my thoughts and motivations. I can’t pretend to be happy just by forcing a smile on my face, because God knows me better than that, he can tell when I’m faking it. Here’s what’s cool: God knows my heart, so when my heart forces a smile, my whole being is filled with genuine joy.

How can my heart force a smile? It’s hard to explain, but the best way I know to do it is with worship. When I let go of everything around me, and focus just on Christ, just on singing, just on dancing, my heart smiles. Even when I don’t feel like worshiping, my heart forces itself to display the sunshine of a smile. It may be unwilling, but the smiling heart is genuine, and it is pleasing to God, unlike the faked smile on the face. It sends a message of joy to the soul in the same way a smile send a message of joy to the brain.

Learning to smile with the heart is a rare thing, but I hope to make it a regular habit.

Do you think the heart can force a genuine smile?