Can You Smile Your Way to Happiness?

Acting as if

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

If you smile more will you be happier?

Let's answer this question with some Stoic psychology.

For the Stoics, the essence of life lies in managing our impressions of external events. Life is constantly throwing events at us. We can shape who we are by choosing how to respond.

Now: smiling. Smiling doesn’t necessarily indicate a good mood. People smile out of nervousness or embarrassment. Its meaning is context-relative. I’m an American. Some cultures hold that the American proclivity to smile is, um, not indicative of high intelligence!

When we smile, we'll receive an impression of our body smiling. That's some reason to infer that we're in a good mood. However, our judgments take in much more than our facial impressions. That's what allows us to distinguish cases in which a smile results from positive and negative emotions. Modern neuroscience and Stoicism are in agreement with this fact.

So, perhaps there are two lessons here.

First, emotions aren’t simply 1-1 mappings onto behaviors. When we’re experiencing an emotion, we’re interpreting a complex behavior and state as a certain emotion. Our thoughts shape our feelings. These depend on who we are and everything we're experiencing, not just one thing.

Second, To be happy, we need a reason to be. Smiling is one, but it’s not all-powerful. It’s just one ingredient in a zestful and energetic life. Happiness, for the Stoics, is found in good character – a character that revels in the true and beautiful. Living like that gives us a reason to smile.

🎯 Action

Think about an action that you can take today that will make you smile. Do it.

😃 So – should you smile more? On the margin, why not? Especially with others.

📺️ A long but instructive podcast about the nature of the emotions from a modern psychologist:

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