Look at my teeth! I am happy!

This is my Sunday column for the Sept. 16, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. This is revised from a version of this piece that ran on KAXE’s “Between You and Me” in 2010.


Look at my teeth! I am happy!
By Aaron J. Brown

How much time do you spend pretending to be happy? I’d argue the degree to which your job involves physical labor directly affects your answer.

If you lubricate machines that crush things weighed in the tons, of if you toss around giant Super Mario pipes, no one minds if you sport a frowny face. Dopey smiles in these trades are distrusted and for good reason. Smiling always accompanies something bad, like layoffs or new policies directed toward you specifically.

For an increasing number of us, however, “work” is being replaced by “workshops.” You know, planning meetings, training and typing. In this bold new world scowls are not welcome. Sport enough frowns and they’ll say you’ve got an attitude problem. You’ll get written up as though you drove a forklift into a portable toilet at the warehouse.

I like to think I work hard, but that work involves keystrokes, handshakes and talking. I put more physical energy into shifting gears on my minivan. Oh, wait. Sometimes I stand up for a long time. There’s more to it, but I won’t bore you.

I now realize I spend most of my days smiling like a guy who sells vacuums to people who don’t leave their houses. What I’m talking about is *a* smile, but not my *actual* smile. My dad wore work boots and work clothes when I was a kid. I wear a work smile.

The work smile involves a *deliberate* contraction of cheek muscles. Instead of *feeling* a natural smile, because you’re so dang happy, this is really more a strategic deployment of teeth.

Sometimes I imagine there’s a catch up by my ear, sort of like what you see on gas pumps. You set the nozzle so you can squeegee your windshield while the pump runs. I lock the smile while people say hello, ask me questions and tell me stories. My work smile is pretty good, overall – highly believable. You just have to make sure you release the catch when someone changes the topic to the plight of an ailing relative or the horrors of a recent national tragedy. Pitwang! Work smile becomes empathy face. This may or may not accompany actual empathy.

Sometimes when I believe myself to be alone in my office I might make an involuntary scowl while reading something. Every once in a while one of the women down the hall calls out, “Don’t be frowning at your computer now, it’s not that bad!” Ha ha! I say. Work smile. You have a great smile, the dentist tells me. I give him my work smile. He gives me his work smile. This is how our economy operates.

I teach, write and do community work. Those who don’t understand “work smiles” often malign teachers, reporters and politicians. Throw in lawyers and car dealers for that matter. Yes, work smiles are artificial, indeed fake to their core. But work smiles are better to look at than frowns and they make people *seem* happy. Research shows that emotions are contagious. Happy looking people make those around them feel better and look happier, too. That all spreads.

Happy people get promotions. Happy people get jobs. Who cares if they’re actually happy? They look happy and that’s a start. Maybe they’ll get happy later? Who knows? It’s a goal.

Happiness is a state of mind. A smile is a deed. Good deeds bring about a better state of mind. Smiling is hard work these days. But it’s good work, if you can get it. [INSERT WORK SMILE HERE]

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.

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