Resting Smiley

Published 5. July 2014.

"When no one is looking and you're not trying, what shows on your face?" - Seth Godin  

_The title and post are inspired by a blog post of the same title by Seth Godin, Resting Smiley Face.

My answer?


More often than not I'm lost in my own thoughts or focused on the task at hand, and I display the face to match, one with focused intensity. When I was growing up my mother would frequently comment about my tendency to be intense, and with the benefits of hindsight I see it clearly. It's great, and necessary, to be focused when you need to, when you're performing at the edge of your abilities or tackling something that scares you. When that happens a face like the one below ain't so bad.


But it's not so great as a default. At minimum that face broadcasts "don't distract me right now" and quickly creates distance. At worst it may have lead, on many occasions, to people outright avoiding interacting at all. Not good.

Fortunately it's fixable.

This project, to reset my 'default face' has been an intermittent self-experiment since last November. The experiment began when I saw myself in a full-length mirror on the final day of my farm stay in Switzerland. Between the sadness of departure and other emotions I had been wrestling with I didn't look terribly inviting or easy to talk to. Maybe understandable given the circumstances, but still, it bothered me. I had already finished packing in preparation for my trek back to town, and I had time to kill waiting for my host to return so I could say farewell and thank him before venturing onward.

I took to playing around with expressions in the mirror and quickly noted how much better I looked with even a subtle smile tugging gently at the corners of my lips. I instantly appeared friendlier than moments before. Strangely enough just practicing holding the smile for a few minutes left me feeling happier as well (an effect that has been studied).

For the next month I practiced this regularly and felt, on average, better than usual, especially considering the constant flux of moods that travel creates. But like many habits, I eventually forgot to maintain it, and much of the gains from that month were lost. I believe part of the reason for losing the habit was I lacked a means for feedback. I couldn't see whether or not I was holding the expression, and had trouble feeling the subtle difference between the default and resting smiley modes.

Months later, while volunteering on a farm in Iceland, I began practicing again, this time determined to learn how to feel the difference in the expressions; the subtle adjustments of muscles around the mouth and around the eyes. Fortunately I had some days devoted to driving a tractor, tilling and preparing fields, which gave plenty of time for practice. I could set the small smile, refocus on the task of driving, then periodically check in the rear mirror to confirm I still held the smile. If I screwed up I could quickly re-adjust and repeat the process. After a day or two of practice I could consciously feel the difference between the two faces without a mirror. Now I could do a quick self-check anywhere to feel if I was reverting to the old default, and switch to the resting smiley face instead.

During this experiment I discovered a virtuous cycle. With the resting smiley as the default I felt a little happier, which lead me to put forth my silly and playful side more often, which then lead to feeling even better. My interactions are filled with more playful energy and genuine interest when I'm in this virtuous cycle.

Now whenever I'm feeling too serious or somber I can check for the resting smiley, and see a small mood boost from it. If that isn't enough, there's always the nuclear option: do something entirely silly and without purpose. My preferred methods are bobbing back and forth, dancing in place, using over-the-top facial expressions, and if it's real bad the gopher dance.

The playful energy you get can be channeled into your interactions and conversations, making them at minimum more fun, and hopefully more meaningful and memorable. The world has more than its share of somber pessimists, we could use more people who are thrumming with life and an endless curiousity.

The resting smiley face won't get you there on its own, but it's a great place to start.