Next time you go to the circus, look deep into the faces and eyes of the clowns. They will teach you how to unlock health and happiness.
Last week we climbed into the heights of the big top for guidance on change. We learned that the trapeze artists’ courage is displayed in one tiny moment, and should inspire us on our own growth trajectory. This week, we stay in the circus, with the friendliest of faces.
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, the cranky ringmaster, but mostly at themselves. They throw back their heads in loud guffaws before crumpling to the floor, slapping their thighs, as mirth overwhelms them.
Clowns spend more time on their make-up than most of the other circus performers. Their face is a critical part of their act. In the traditional role, they smear their face with a thick white base coat, the perfect backdrop to highlight their expressive eyes, nose and mouth. High false eyebrows create the appearance of huge, wide eyes. Bright red lipstick turns their mouth into an enduring fleshy grin. The plump red nose hints at their perpetually jolly disposition. Or so we’re expected to think …
There is one more feature that few notice. The classical clown’s face always has a little teardrop painted under one or both eyes. It’s the origin of this embellishment that drives our instinctive empathy for the character, and is the clue to a powerful life lesson.
According to legend, clowns introduced the tear to remind us that they are real people. Despite their ever-present humor, they also have 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 all overt signs of happiness.
I admit that, as a young boy, I was a little troubled by the clowns. I found their over-the-top hilarity unsettling. Perhaps I instinctively saw through their exaggerated levity, disliking the lack of authenticity. As I grew up though, I developed huge respect for these jokers. Today, I admire their enormous courage, and their valiant efforts at making our world a better place.
Several life lessons emerge from studying these familiar circus faces.
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, or email, or text messages. Get out and “into the faces” of family, friends and work colleagues. At worst, use emojis with painted faces 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, falling around like our painted circus friends on occasion – even if you do it while nobody is watching. Just as the clown uses humor to break the tension between heavy acts, you should 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.