“Smiling inside:” becoming more mellow

Darold Treffert MD
Smiling little girl

My definition of good mental health is being more “mellow”—“relaxed, at ease and pleasantly convivial.” One of my patients described it as “smiling inside.”

“Mellow” more deeply described means:  “fully developed, sweet, gentle; not course or rough; full, rich, pure, free of garishness, roughness, stridency and the harshness of youth; having attained gentleness, softness and kindliness through aging and experience; relaxed, at ease and pleasantly convivial.”

I especially like ‘gentleness, softness and kindliness through aging and experience’ because that describes so well so many of the older  persons I have met in my practice this past 50 years. I would add “wisdom” and “sensitivity” for I have seen those also in these older citizens as a valuable benefit of added life experiences. Collectively those traits can be a powerful role model and template for contentment to our sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

How does one become more mellow? I have listened to many persons and their predicaments these past many years. From that  listening comes some of the ingredients I would include if I were to write a prescription for good mental health and more ‘smiling inside’.

First would be better balance in some areas of our lives. A better balance between what we do and what we are. A better balance between self esteem and esteem for others, especially appreciation for the warm, human relationships with the people we are privileged to live with and to love—clearly one of the neatest things about this whole planet. A better balance between the urgent things that clutter our lives and the important things we sometimes overlook like the people we are privileged to live with and to love. A better balance between postponing too often vs. savoring the moment before it escapes—before those precious childhood moments disappear because the kids are all grown up now and the house is more silent.

There are other ingredients as well.  Relaxation—a favorite chair, a piece of music, a walk in the woods. Communicating better—not just talking, but more importantly, listening. Purpose and spirituality—belonging to something bigger than oneself that is worthwhile. Being comfortable and confident about one’s choices realizing that every “yes” requires a thousand “no’s.” Prioritizing between the essential and the distracting because, as the Fox says in the book The Little Prince, “that which is essential is invisible.”

Finally mellowing is basically a perspective. We jet all over the planet looking for the perfect climate, the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect family. Then, often later, sometimes only after crisis, we discover right close at hand in our house and with our own family, in the same room with us, are the “that’s as good as it gets” feelings of love, appreciation, specialness, trust and warmth we have been searching for all along.

Why is it that health, like sleep, needs to be interrupted before it is truly appreciated? And why is it that so often it is only after the spot on the lung, or the little stroke we that we suddenly appreciate life, and the people around us so close at hand?

Mellowing keeps us from having to wait that long. In his song “Have You Never Been Mellow?” songwriter John Farrar asks: “Have you never tried to find a comfort from inside you? Have you never been content just to hear your song?"

Smiling inside is being relaxed, at ease and pleasantly convivial AND finding a comfort from inside you. It is hearing and appreciating your very own song. It is also appreciating the shape of your own psychological ‘soul’ and appreciating the presence and shape of all those souls around us, each different from us, but each as valuable—no more, no less—than the other. It is the realization that as Rollo May pointed out, the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is apathy. Being mellow is being un-apathetic to those around us, especially the significant persons in our lives. It is realizing that holding hands, a warm smile, a walk in the woods on a pretty day, making someone feel special, tears, laughter, trust, closeness, warmth, joy—that’s as good as it gets. And that is really very, very good.

Mellowing doesn’t come in pill form and never will. It comes more naturally from inside us when we work at it as a conscious effort to relax, to enjoy, to savor, to be attentive, affectionate, appreciative and expressive to significant persons right around us. It is deliberately working at slowing one’s pace and consciously substituting tolerance and affection.

One more thing. Mellowing is not a disease, but it is contagious. You can catch it from, and spread it to, the people around you. But that’s a welcome kind of contagion. Have you never been mellow? It’s never too late to begin. Mellowing is the most readily available anti-depressant of all. And it’s free, and right close by. It makes you smile inside.

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