Smiley face

comments 5
Anthropology / Health / Myths / Psychology

We all smile. We smile when we’re happy, but also when we’re sad, embarrassed or in pain. If someone smiles at us, we can’t help but smile back. We judge each other by our smiles, although exactly what you make of a smile depends on your culture. But is it true even a forced smile will make you feel happier?

A genuine smile is hard to fake. Image credit Matteo Martinelli via Flickr

A genuine smile can be hard to fake, but does it matter? Image credit Matteo Martinelli via Flickr

Put on a happy face

One of the odd things about smiling is that in the animal world, the baring of teeth is often a sign of aggression. Among humans, there are two main kinds of smiles. A genuine smile – known as a Duchenne smile – raises your cheeks, gives you crow’s feet around your eyes and signals enjoyment. The other kind of smile only involves raising the corners of your mouth and is essentially a forced ‘say cheese’ kind of smile. It’s also been dubbed a flight attendant smile. These two smiles are controlled by different parts of your brain and emerge very early. Ten-month olds give a fake smile to strangers but a genuine smile to their mothers.

What your smile says about you

People who smile are perceived of as happier, more attractive and likeable. Women smile more than men, but we all smile less often as we age. People who smile are thought of as more polite, relaxed and carefree, as well as more honest and kind. Kids draw both ‘nice’ and ‘clever’ people with smiles on their faces. None of that is terribly surprising, but your tendency to smile may say more about you than you realise.

One well-known study involved analysing the smiles of more than one hundred 21-year old women in their college yearbook photos. Some photos captured real smiles, others, fake smiles, and some of the women weren’t smiling at all. The researchers followed up with these women at several stages through their lives. Even 30 years later, women with genuine smiles at 21 were more likely to be happily married and to score high on measures of overall wellbeing. These women were also more likely to be organised, compassionate, nurturing and sociable.

Another study of photos found if you smiled more in photos taken during your early life, you are less likely to be divorced later on. Smiles captured in photos may even predict how long you’re going to live. Baseball players photographed with genuine smiles in 1942 lived to an average age of 80 years. This compares with players who didn’t smile in their photos and lived an average of only 72 years. That’s eight more (presumably happy) years for the smilers.

The whole world smiles with you

Have you ever traveled somewhere, smiled at someone in an attempt to convey your friendliness and been met with a blank face? Be aware: smiling means different things in different places. For example, according to a Russian proverb: ‘smiling for no reason is a sign of stupidity’. In Iran, people are perceived as less intelligent when they smile than when they don’t. This is also true of people in Japan, India, South Korea, Russia and France. Interestingly, in cultures with high levels of corruption, smiling people are far less trusted than in less corrupt societies.

Other aspects of smiling are likely to be more universal. We know smiling is contagious and the act of you smiling also makes the people around you feel cheerier. Smiling helps us stay calm in stressful situations and prompts us to return to happy memories. But is it true what people say – that smiling, even with a fake smile, makes you feel happier?

Fake it ’til you make it

Most of us are well versed at smiling whenever someone points a camera in our direction. And being able to smile on demand may well be a good thing because research shows smiling makes us happy. It’s officially known as the facial feedback hypothesis.

The idea an expression on your face could influence how you feel goes back to Darwin. Back in 1872, he suggested showing an emotion outwardly would intensify the feeling of that emotion. The famous smile textbook example comes from research published in 1988. The idea was to test whether smiling made people feel more positive. The challenge? How to get people to smile without knowing they were doing it. The simple, but ingenious answer was to ask people to hold a pen either between their lips, or their teeth.

Try it. With a pen held between your lips, you end up frowning. But with a pen held between your teeth, it’s impossible not to smile. Sure enough, in this study people who were forced to smile rated Far Side cartoons as much funnier than those who had been made to frown. The same thing has been found many times, in a heap of different studies. If we smile, even without knowing it, we feel more positive. One study even found using Botox injections to get rid of frown lines can contribute towards recovery from depression.

I should point out that when 17 different research groups set out to exactly replicate the original pen-in-mouth study this year, the results didn’t pan out.

But on balance it still seems finding plenty of reasons to plaster a genuine smile across your face is probably a good way to go through life. I’m certainly up for the challenge.

Links and stuff


  1. Pingback: Smiley face — Espresso Science | By the Mighty Mumford

  2. Ah Far Side… my favourite non Aussie cartoonist. How could you possibly force yourself to frown whilst reading a Larson?

    I’m telling you, all this baby research you keep sharing, only confirms that these seemingly innocent little people, are complex, manipulative little individuals!

    • Totally agree – Far Side is so good! One of the reasons suggested as to why researchers couldn’t replicate the results of the original study when they tried this year was that perhaps Far Side cartoons had dated. As in, people just wouldn’t find them as funny now as they did in the 1980s. I don’t buy that!!

Please, let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s