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May 14, 2013

Mom’s simple advice still presents a valuable challenge

Most moms don’t base their advice on scientific research.

(Unless, of course, your mother is a scientific researcher. If so, carry a No. 2 pencil and take good notes.)

Instead, their words of wisdom come from a greater source — the heart, where they store and process life experiences.

Unfortunately, some folks don’t receive the gift of maternal guidance, for various reasons. Even then, a female authority figure — a grandmother, older sister, aunt, foster mom, teacher or church member — occasionally steps in at the right moment and offers a memorable comment to a kid who needs it.

Motherly advice can carry staying power.

My mom hasn’t had to wake me up since I was a senior in high school. (She can sleep in these days, if she chooses.) My wife handles that routine now. Still, on many mornings, while we’re still waking up, I find myself repeating a phrase Mom said in those early hours of almost every day of my childhood and youth …

“Rise and shine, and face the world with a smile,” she’d say, almost singing it.

Back then, I probably thought that sentence meant: get up, don’t grumble, get dressed, eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, go to school, be happy. And, simply tackling that checklist is indeed an accomplishment for an 8-year-old, or an 18-year-old. A few decades later, though, Mom’s vocal reveille challenges me to go beyond a clean-shaven grin.

It’s not just a matter of smiling. Many of us can mentally go to our “happy place” and end up chuckling alone and that’s not a bad thing. As Andy Rooney once said, “If you smile when no one else is around, you really mean it.” True inner joy. What a blessing.

Mom’s motto asks us to go one step further, to share that smile. “Face the world” with it.

The world isn’t always easy to face with any expression. On our darkest days, it’s tempting to see Earth and its other 7 billion human occupants as more worthy of a frown or a blank stare from us. Life brings hard knocks — the loss of a loved one, a job layoff, a broken home, addictions, flaring tempers at the Little League park, a bully at school, foreclosure, a fender-bender, a busted furnace.

My mom, who raised five kids with my dad and watched her own mother raise seven children as a single widow during the Depression, understood the “life-isn’t-always-fair” reality, but also that wonderful moments happen, too. Her own joyful, early morning smiles showed me the best way to face the ups and downs.

It wasn’t just a hunch, either. Mom’s “rise and shine, and face the world with a smile” admonition has a historic and, yes, scientific basis.

Its opening words are biblical, appearing in the Book of Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” Centuries later, British Army officers began a tradition of rousing the troops, hollering, “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine.” (Thankfully, Mom omitted the “wakey, wakey” part.)

The latter portion of the motto, “face the world with a smile,” holds proven, positive effectiveness. People who smiled after taking on a stressful task showed a greater decrease in heart rate than folks who kept a blank face in a 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some folks wear a “Duchenne” smile (named for a 19th-century neurologist), full and genuine, triggering major eye muscles as well as those around the mouth. Others sport a “Pan Am” smile (such as those exhibited in obligatory and polite fashion by airline stewardesses) involving just mouth muscles.

A smile, deep or superficial, also can predict satisfaction in life and longevity, the same report states.

That’s the conclusion reached by different researchers, led by psychology professor Matthew Hertenstein, who oversees the school’s Touch and Emotion Lab, at DePauw University in Greencastle. They interviewed 650 adults and collected school-age photos from each person. Those who wore the brightest smiles in those pictures were three times more likely to have a strong marriage than those who frowned, the DePauw team discovered through those interviews. Their results created a chicken-or-the-egg question — which comes first, the smile or the happiness?

“Maybe smiling represents a positive disposition towards life,” Hertenstein said in a 2009 DePauw news release, quoting an MSNBC story. “Or maybe smiling people attract other happier people, and the combination may lead to a greater likelihood of a long-lasting marriage. We don’t really know for sure.”

With that element of mystery in mind, resist the urge to go back through childhood scrapbooks or high school yearbooks to assess your facial expressions or draw a grin onto a photo. Instead, the best we can do is create a brighter picture the next morning, if we rise and shine, and face the world with a smile. Then, for those who can, give your mom a call and thank her for that opportunity.

Mark Bennett writes for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. He can be reached at mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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