Grinning Like an Idiot

December 14, 2020
Eric Postal, MD

Getting you through the end-of-year doldrums and work pressures.

This is not the best time of year for me. As I’ve mentioned in some previous columns, I’m at my peak in spring and summer—long daylight hours, warm temperatures, plants green and blooming. Take that stuff away, and I tend to wilt. Maybe I’ve got a touch of “seasonal affective disorder?” I suspect most people have some vestige of a hibernation-instinct in them.

So I’ve come to understand that my perception of events, and reaction to them, skews negative in late autumn and early winter. Maybe my preferred political candidates lost in a given year’s elections, or they won but I’ve got a post-climactic letdown as I realize that nothing has changed. Or maybe my country is still thrashing about, trying to figure out who actually won, and I’m beginning to question its whole system. Perhaps I get the “holiday blues;” I’d be far from the only one.

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I don’t know how many annual cycles of this I went through before I recognized the pattern, but one doesn’t have to be a physician to know that a problem doesn’t go away upon diagnosis. That’s why treatments get invented.

Knowing what the progression of autumn is likely to bring me, I can mentally prepare for it. Brace for impact by making sure I get enough sleep, exercise, etc., and proactively maintain the right frame of mind. Still, this sort of thing sneaks up on you, and it’s never bad to add to your bag of tricks.

A nice one crossed my path this year, which I vaguely remembered hearing about before: Have you ever heard that the simple act of smiling can improve your mood? Even if you don’t feel like smiling, something about doing it tickles your neurons in a way that brings about greater cheerfulness.

Pseudoscientific hogwash, sounds like? Maybe. But, a psychological study from a few decades ago had subjects hold a pen between their teeth without lips touching (thus, forcing a smile, despite not having been told that this was the effect of the pen-maneuver), versus another group holding the pen between their lips (resulting in more of a pout). The forced-smilers’ sense of humor was augmented, and subsequent investigations made similar observations.

To be fair, a relatively recent meta-study, conducted just a few years ago, failed to replicate those results. As is common with such things, some folks held this up as disproof of the original work, while others pointed out flaws in the meta-study’s method that, they claimed, rendered it inconclusive. That’s the problem with science; it’s only “settled” until some more science comes along to unsettle it.

Fortunately, I don’t need a massive consensus to make up my mind on this one. It takes virtually nothing from me to turn the corners of my mouth upward. No expended resources, no risk of negative side-effects. If it works, great…if not, no harm done. Sort of like the placebo effect. As one of my mentors once observed, if a placebo results in a 50 percent change of symptomatic improvement, that’s pretty darned good—sign me up!

The only difficulties I’ve faced with this have been to A) remember to do it since it’s not a routine behavior yet, and B) overcome a bit of self-appraising resistance. That little internal voice that sometimes speaks up to put the brakes on something you’re about to do. In this case, the voice would be saying, “Hey, what’s this with the smile? We’re trying to be unhappy, and you’re grinning like an idiot. Get with the program!

I can tell you, from a few attempts in recent weeks, that the smile-trick usually works, at least for me. I’ve snapped myself out of a few negative moods, however they were brought on: Hearing one too many bits of bad news in conjunction, getting a frustrating runaround from somebody who’s supposed to be doing work on my house, fielding an unpleasant call from a referrer, you name it.

Indeed, the only times I can remember it not working have been when I’m in a sufficient funk that I resist making the smile, or keeping it on for more than a moment. That is, I seem to want, even need, to “be with” my displeasure. (Maybe wallow in it.) Which, I suppose, is only natural. Sometimes circumstances justify a bad mood, and ignoring that probably isn’t healthy.

I suppose I might less-readily try this if I weren’t a teleradiologist, working from home with just a couple of cats and a pooch to keep me company. If I were sitting in an office or hospital, with other people coming and going, I might feel a little self-conscious about being seen, grinning like an idiot, when, in fact, I was feeling pretty crummy. And/or secretive – if someone saw me looking cheery, they might consider that as an unspoken invite to interact with me when I’d rather be left alone.

Fortunately, for the near future, anybody in such an environment is liable to be wearing a mask—so, now might be a perfect time to try this out. Nobody will notice what you’re doing…but, if you come across as happier overall, and less easily rattled, that’d be a nice little bonus.

Follow Diagnostic Imaging Editorial Board member Eric Postal, M.D., on Twitter, @EricPostal_MD.

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