In search of happiness

Lesson 3: A smile can go a long way.

Obama Netanyahu smiling happy meeting 390 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Obama Netanyahu smiling happy meeting 390
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
For some strange reason, whenever I write the word “tov” on my cellphone, the spell-checker changes it to “TOV.” So, for example, people don’t get wished a “good” week, but an emphatically “GOOD” week.
Since I am technologically challenged, but also because I actually thought, “Hmm, maybe it isn’t enough just to passively wish people a good week, but to aspire for a great week,” I’ve decided to leave it that way. Perhaps we really should extend ourselves to connect with others.
Why? Because at the end of the day, it can make both you and the other person feel good. While you may have thought it phony to have been told to “Have a nice day” in a store in Middle America, doesn’t that feel better than being yelled at by someone for not moving fast enough, when the traffic light hasn’t even changed to green? The study of human behavior fascinates me, and I am reminded of my very first class as an undergraduate student in psychology many decades ago, where we spent two hours watching film footage of wolves interacting in the wild. We were repeatedly shown the same film, over and over, and told to “notice” and record exactly what was happening. By the fifth viewing, we really did observe many different things that we had missed earlier.
Our second class began with film footage of Konrad Lorenz, a biologist who studied imitative behavior in families of geese. Initially somewhat troubled that this was what I had voluntarily signed up for, I soon realized that ethology, the study of animal behavior, was essential to our understanding of human behavior and relationships. In so many ways, these two classes have had a major impact on my approach as a clinical psychologist.
While psychologists still find it valuable to watch film footage of dyads in interaction, we have also moved to a deeper level, literally and figuratively, in our understanding of human behavior.
Although the use of functional neuroimaging studies is still very much in its infancy, this area offers exciting insight into human behavior, not imagined a few decades ago. As functional neuroimaging studies become more sophisticated, we are learning that there are mirror neurons in our brain that detect through facial expressions, within a fraction of a second, the actions and emotions of others, and cause us to instantaneously experience the sensation of feeling the very same emotion.
If this research bears fruit, we can gain an even greater understanding of the intimate “dance” between two people, and grasp the possible ramifications of problematic imitation and mirroring, and its impact on the individual and his interactions with others, such as his family or society at large.
We have the ability to communicate a tremendous amount through our facial and body movements, without ever saying a word.
What does all of this study of behavior and the brain tell us? In its simplicity, we know that we feel good when we make others feel good, and other people, through very simple actions, have the ability to help us feel good.
So what can you do to help others feel good? The answer is easy. While the neurobiological mechanisms may be far more complex than we could have ever imagined, one way to make others feel good is through a simple smile.
When my daughter and I walk on the street on Shabbat, we smile and wish “Shabbat shalom” to just about everyone – stranger and friend, religious and secular, male and female, young and old, whoever we happen to pass. While there are some people who don’t respond, and those who think we couldn’t possibly be talking to them, the vast majority make eye contact and say “Shabbat shalom” back with a smile. Several people whom we have never actually officially met, after months and in some cases years of doing this, now, whenever we pass on the street, say hello to us as if we are old friends.
And how does it feel? Very good. Smiling and eye contact trigger happiness.
Years ago I wrote about the impact of “random acts of kindness,” doing something nice for someone else that is totally unexpected. So whether it is putting money in a parking meter that you see is about to run out, paying for the coffee of the person behind you in line, or smiling at someone you don’t know, these things make both the giver and the recipient feel incredibly good.
Feeling good translates to healthier emotional and physical well-being, and I have learned that, while this may be a simple concept, how we treat others ultimately has a huge impact on just how we ourselves feel. Communicating that we care about someone else, that we will be there for them, helps establish a connectedness between people.
Connectedness, and the resulting relationship, makes us feel good.
So the next time you are on the street and are passing by a stranger – a potential friend you have yet to make – slow down, take a breath, look them in the eye, smile and say hello. Remember, in the same way that a yawn is contagious, we know that a smile is absolutely infectious.
This spring, during this time of renewal, this is one kind of epidemic from which society could definitely benefit. 
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana, and author of Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships – Resolving Conflicts. She has written about psychology in The Jerusalem Post since 2000. Send correspondence to or visit her website at