I’ve been fortunate to visit Thailand many times and after being here again, I’ve been asking myself: How is it that so many Thai people are quick to flash spontaneous and radiant smiles? Spend even a little time here and you’ll understand why Thailand is called “The Land of Smiles.”
A cynical interpretation is that smiling faces are a fake show of happiness designed to captivate tourists. And of course, a smile can sometimes cover up one’s true feelings, such as nervousness, anger, or sadness. But from my own observations and after speaking with many savvy travelers, I’m convinced that the smiles are often genuine.
How can it be that in a third world country where the average salary is so low, people can seem—and perhaps actually be—happy much of the time—or seemingly content with themselves and their lives? Is there something we can learn from this attitude and way of being that might help us Westerners find greater happiness?
Thailand is a Buddhist country. The attitudes and worldview reflected in Buddhism might have something to do with the sense of contentment many people seem to exude. Another factor may be the sense of community and connection that seems to stem from a strong sense of extended family and interpersonal attachments.
Excessive Expectations and Hopes
Westerners grow up on a steady diet of wanting, expecting, and hoping for more. The media and advertising fan the flames of our desires. It seems that we’ve become increasingly preoccupied with achieving some final, far-off goal rather than enjoying the journey. We keep postponing living our lives rather than relishing the present moment.
It takes a strong sense of self to not succumb to the belief that we’ll be happier with more things. We work hard to buy a big house and then work even harder to make the mortgage payment and property taxes. If someone has more than us, we may become envious and perhaps crave the sense of belonging and connection that comes with “keeping up” with the latest trends and gadgets.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make our lives more comfortable. People in developing countries and even in the West would like to have a reliable washing machine or better smart phone. There’s no shame in this.
But when is enough enough? Can we find a middle path between wanting more and having gratitude for what we have? Can we find a way to hold those desires lightly and not allow them to interfere with appreciating what we have? A greater sense of freedom comes with accepting our limits. We’ll be happier as we develop the art of living in the moment rather than constantly leaning into the future.
A spontaneous smile springs from an inner sense of feeling content and connected. If we’re feeling deprived or neglected, it’s not easy to offer a generous smile to people we encounter. We’re more inclined to smile when we’re experiencing a sense of inner peace. Being at peace with ourselves is only possible when we’re living in the present moment, rather than being preoccupied by what we don’t have.
I’m not suggesting that Thailand or other developing countries are a paradise free from suffering. Far from it. It is stressful to wonder how you’ll feed your family next week…or tomorrow. Nor am I suggesting that social and political factors are not a dominant suppressive force all over the world.
Yet in cultures that value kindness and family, there seems to be a sense of community and connectedness that prevails despite challenges. There appears to be an ongoing societal co-regulation of each other’s nervous systems that I don’t see as much in the West. Healthy attachments and values of kindness and gentleness contribute to allowing an authentic smile to emerge from the depths of their being.
My spirits are always buoyed when an authentic smile drifts my way. Smiling is contagious. And it feels good to smile. Research has even shown that faking a smile can make us feel better. Smiling reduces stress and lifts our mood.
Here is an exercise from Vietnamese meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that you might try to boost your smiling capacity and mood:
As you breathe in, say to yourself: Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Then, as you breathe out, think:
Breathing out, I smile.
I invite you to be more mindful of when you smile—or don’t smile. Perhaps you can find a little more generosity in your heart to offer a warm smile to people you encounter. You might just find that smiling offers a wonderful gift to yourself—the gift of enjoying more moments of being present and connected—and that smiling offers a wonderful gift to others, as well—it’s contagious!
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