Every circus has a clown. Their role is uplifting. They bring relief and humor, breaking the tension between sword-swallowing, fire-breathing, lion-taming, and high-wire balancing. They interact intimately with the audience, frequently stepping out of the ring to get closer to the wide-eyed children in the front rows.
Clowns laugh out loud. They laugh at their clowning colleagues, the audience, and the cranky ringmaster—but mostly they laugh at themselves. They throw back their heads in loud guffaws before crumpling to the floor, slapping their thighs, as mirth overwhelms them. Even their made-up faces display hilarity, with their plump red noses hinting at their perpetually jolly disposition and their mouths painted in an enduring fleshy grin.
But there is one little feature of the classical clown’s face that few notice. He or she always has a little teardrop painted under one or both eyes. According to legend, clowns introduced the tear to remind us that they are real people. Despite their ever-present humor, they also have other feelings. In fact, their wild laughter in performance often hides a melancholy soul, predisposed to sadness and depression. When the flashing lights and loud music subside, the clowns return to their dressing rooms to wipe off their makeup, and with this act they remove the overt signs of their theatrical happiness.
I admit that, as a young boy, I was a little troubled by the clowns. I found their over-the-top hilarity unsettling. As I grew up, though, I developed huge respect for these jokers. Today, I admire their enormous courage and valiant efforts to make our world a better place, to spread the joy that they are so often missing themselves.
We can learn several life lessons from studying these familiar circus characters.
First, our faces are powerful communication tools. We each have 43 muscles in our face, giving us an astounding 8.8 trillion unique facial gestures. We are healthy and happy when we use these, and when we pay close attention to the facial expressions of others. Don’t hide behind the phone, email, or text messages. Get out and “into the faces” of family, friends, and colleagues. If you must communicate in writing, use emojis to share your feelings.
Second, humor is both healthy and infectious. A host of good scientific research has proven the tangible health benefits of smiling and laughing. Make sure that you laugh out loud, on occasion falling around like our painted circus friends—even if you do it while nobody is watching. Just as the clown uses humor to break the tension between heavy acts, you can use it to relieve the stresses of a modern life.
Finally, and most importantly, there are times when you must force a smile. Especially when you are at your lowest, the simple physical act of smiling or laughing lifts your mood at a chemical level. Clowns across the ages have known that there are times to fake it until you make it—follow their lead and smile until you mean it.
The clown’s contrasting tear and smile capture clues about our real nature—how we all walk a tightrope between joy and suffering, happiness and sadness. I hope that the clown’s face will inspire you to study and emulate their strategy. Each of us can systematically build joy in our lives and the lives of those around us by acting positively—and even forcing a happy face, if necessary.