One of the many attributes I love about my daughter is I never have to guess what she’s thinking. She has no problem letting me know—either through what she says (and how she says it) or by the look on her face.
Some people have told me, on the other hand, they don’t always know what I’m thinking, because “they can’t read me.” Maybe that’s a good quality at a poker table but not at the dining room table.
As a pastor I have developed a particular facial expression I like to refer to as “pastoral concern,” but those close to me call it “emotional dullness.” Whatever one calls it, I like that facial expression, because people can tell me anything—literally—and I don’t appear shocked. Good news, bad news, horrible news? I can make my facial expression appear interested, calm, and pensive. At least that’s what I thought I was doing. I didn’t realize that what others saw was disengaged, disinterested, and distant.
I need to be more like my daughter.
Here’s what I’m learning: I can change. And so can you. Not long ago, I read about a study conducted by a German team of psychologists on emotion and facial expression. They had a group of subjects look at a cartoon while either holding a pen between their lips (which made it difficult to smile) or clenching a pen between their teeth (which forced them to smile). What they discovered is that the people who clenched a pen between their teeth found the cartoons much funnier. The results may seem hard to believe, because we assume the emotion comes first, then the facial expression.
Most of us think our facial expressions are the residue of emotions, and they often are. But what the research showed is that the process also works in the opposite direction. Emotion can begin on the face and travel to the heart. As Malcolm Gladwell writes, “The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process” (Blink, 208).
If someone says to me, “You need to learn how to smile more,” they actually are more right than they realize. The good news is, I can learn this, and in so doing my emotions will follow.
The Apostle Paul tells us to dwell on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). We can choose which road our minds travel. And we can choose the path to healthier emotions. Often is the case that our faces will lead the way.