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The Science Behind the Smile

Updated: May 6

The way we smile - or not - is a powerful communication tool that significantly influences how we're perceived by others. Countless studies demonstrate that we appear friendlier, more attractive, more confident, more competent, younger and more likeable when we smile.

Smiling teachers are more perceived to be more effective than nonsmiling teachers. Smiling employees are perceived to be more trustworthy. Smiling servers not only receive bigger tips, but guests rate the service, food, and overall dining experience better than when served by a nonsmiling server.

"Smile and the world smiles with you." -Stanley Gordon West

It turns out that the power of smiling isn’t just social science; it’s also neuroscience. Smiling – and seeing someone else smile at you – actually changes the brain. It increases the production of “happy chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. In fact, one smile can activate the brain’s happiness circuitry as much as the thought of 2,000 chocolate bars or $25,000.

The scientific study of happiness (aka positive psychology) and the benefits of smiling has expanded significantly over the last two decades. Not only have we been able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are stimulating by smiling and seeing others smile, we’ve discovered the impact smiling has on neural connectivity, immune system, mood, health, perception of experiences and overall satisfaction with life.

In one study, participants were shown pictures of people expressing emotions like joy, anger, fear and surprise. When the picture of someone smiling was presented, the researchers asked the subjects to frown. They found that it took conscious effort to turn that smile upside down. The natural instinct to mimic the smile they saw in the photo is a result of mirror neurons and emotional contagion. Smiling is contagious because the part of the brain responsible for the facial muscles involved in smiling is the cingulate cortex, an unconscious automatic response area.

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." --Thich Nhat Hanh

Psychologist and author, Daniel Kahneman asked attendees at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos to do a simple pencil smile experiment. He asked half of the audience to hold a pencil horizontally between their teeth forcing a smiling expression and the other half to hold a pencil vertically forcing a frowning expression. Those who held the pencil horizontally forcing a smiling expression reported higher levels of happiness than those who held the pencil vertically forcing a frowning expression.

“Being amused tends to make you smile and smiling tends to make you feel amused.” -Daniel Kahneman

In a 2010 study, researchers looked at Major League baseball card photos from 1952. They found a correlation between the span of a player's smile and his lifespan. Players who did not smile in their photos lived 72.9 years on average, while beaming players averaged 80 years - a full seven years longer!

In 2001, UC Berkeley psychologists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner used a Facial Action Coding System to determine if the width of students’ smiles in college yearbook photos would be accurate predictors of academic achievement, overall well-being, happiness, and even how fulfilling their marriages would be then matched the women's smile ratings against 30 years of personality data.

The students with the widest smiles ranked highest in every metric. By age 52, they found, the women whose photos at 21 had radiated happiness had better health, happier marriages, and expressed greater overall life satisfaction. Conversely, those who smiled least, compared to those who smiled most, were five times more likely to be divorced and unhappy later in life.


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