The Power of a Smile

As photos from my adolescent years will attest, I’ve never been one for smiling on cue. I’ve gotten better at expressing the smile within, but in too many photos, I look like I’m having only the smallest amount of fun. Nevertheless, research keeps showing the interesting effects surrounding a simple smile.

Before we jump into the surprising science of smiles, I want to clarify one thing off the bat. Some of these studies compare authentic smiles to forced smiles. How can you tell a real smile from a fake smile? Psychologists have found that a particular set of facial actions give away true smiles. These “genuine” smiles are called Duchenne smiles. These are smiles that engage the muscle around your eyes. (Test your smile-detecting abilities here.)

Smiling is linked to a bunch of benefits for a few reasons. One is that a smile is a reflection of happiness. We already know from tons of studies that happier people experience a ton of positive outcomes. Therefore smiling is linked with life benefits because it shares a room with happiness. The other is that people are treated differently when they smile. One study showed that the more a person smiled in a photo, the more viewers of that photo expected an interaction with that person to go well…and expectations like that make people treat others with more warmth.

Smiling and Social Health

Smile PsychologySo, smiling is great…but how, exactly? Well, as we just saw, smiling signals friendliness and encourages positive interactions. People are drawn more to people who seem happy, even after controlling for perceived physical attractiveness.

As a result, people with a propensity to display genuine happiness are likely to enjoy quality social relationships. This pattern has shown up several times in some remarkable studies.

One study collected a bunch of yearbook photos from a small women’s college in 1958 and 1960.[1]  The researchers actually took advantage of an existing study that began in the late 50s and continues today. This study has given surveys to a sample of women who were enrolled at Mills College in the late 50s and have continued to keep in touch with these women over their whole lives.  Fastidious researchers analyzed those photos for signs of genuine smiles. The people in those photos were contacted when they were about 27 years old–about 5 years after the photos were taken. The researchers found that the more these women were smiling in their yearbook photos, the more likely they were to be married 5 years later.

They also contacted these women much later–when they were about 52 years old. This was many years after their photos were taken! Yet, the more they were smiling in their yearbook photos, the more they report being satisfied in their marriage at age 52!

Another study contacted university alumni (men and women) and got responses from nearly 500 former students. Like in the other study, they analyzed the respondents’ yearbook photos for signs of genuine smiling. This study, though, was interested in divorce. They found a reliable connection between smile intensity in yearbook photos and the likelihood of divorce later in life. People who smiled more in their yearbook photo were less likely to get divorced later in life.

Smiling and Physical Health

It’s no secret that happier people tend to be healthier. But can this be captured by a smile?

smile02First, how about we look at a pretty obvious sign of health: not dying. Researchers gathered photos from more than 200 Major League Baseball players who were active in 1952. They sorted them based on whether the player showed a genuine Duchenne smile or wasn’t smiling at all.[2]  They also looked at players who had forced smiles. Those players’ life expectancy was in the middle, but it wasn’t clearly worse than genuine smilers or better than nonsmilers. And because people keep tabs on professional athletes, the researchers also had access to the dates when those baseball players died.

Overall, players with genuine smiles in their photos tended to live longer than non-smilers. When you look year by year, the smiling players were about half as likely as non-smilers to die in any given year.

A recent study shines new light on the life expectancy results. Student ID photos were analyzed for signs of smiling, and those students were asked whether they had visited a health center in the past year. Students who smiled for their ID photos were more likely to have visited a health center in the past year. This turned out to be especially true for preventive health center visits.

Smiling and Mental Adjustment

Smiling has also been associated with personal psychological benefits, too. In particular, smiling seems to help people deal with negative emotional events.

One study considered a group of people who recently lost someone they loved. All of these participants briefly spoke about their relationship with the person who had recently passed away. Researchers observed video of these interviews and analyzed them for signs of genuine smiling and/or laughing. They followed up with the participants later and found that the more they smiled or laughed as they talked about their deceased partner, the better they were managing their grief 25 months after the person passed away.

Another study showed that students who smiled more during a speech were better able to cope with negative emotions and showed less distress over a 2-year period.

Smiling and Well-Being

This one might seem like a no-brainer. After all, happier people smile more.

smile03Nevertheless, signs of smiling predict life satisfaction later in life. In the study from before that looked at yearbook photos and marriage outcomes, the surveys also contained a measure of well-being. At the time the yearbook photos were taken–when the women were about 21 years old–the more they were smiling in their photo, the more they said they felt a sense of well-being.

That’s not too surprising, but the more people smiled in their college yearbook photo, the greater well-being they felt at age 27, 43, and 52 (when the researchers followed up)! In other words, something about one’s whole life can be captured in a single photo.

More recently, researchers collected Facebook profile pictures from first-semester college students. These photos tend to be more informal than posed yearbook pictures. So they analyzed these Facebook photos for signs of genuine smiling and got in touch with these students again when they were about to graduate.

Like the yearbook study, people who smiled more in their Facebook profiles 3.5 years earlier reported greater life satisfaction, compared to the non-smilers. Their results also suggest that this is at least partially because the smilers were more satisfied with their social relationships.

Smiling and (Reduced) Aggression

To quickly consider a different sort of smiling effect, some research has linked smiling to less physical dominance. A smile doesn’t just communicate friendliness–it also shows that you aren’t hostile and aggressive. In a study of UFC fighters, researchers connected pre-fight photos with competitors’ success in the ring. (Is there a “ring” in UFC? I’m only mildly familiar with mixed martial arts, and my assumption was always that a mud pit was involved. I digress…)

In general, winning fighters didn’t smile as much as losing fighters in their pre-fight photos. When a random sample of people viewed these photos themselves, they tended to view smiling fighters[3]  For my notebook: “Smiling Fighters” is a great band name. as more physically dominant than non-smiling fighters…even though they had no idea that the study had anything to do with smiling.

Smile and the World Smiles With You

So, there you go. The state of Smile Science.

I find these studies super interesting–especially the ones that link a single photo to the person’s life 30 years later. In many ways, though, these studies aren’t as satisfying as I wish they were. The lingering question is why? What is it about a fleeting genuine smile that can predict one’s health and well-being? More research is certainly needed to clear that up.

And before you interpret this evidence as a reason to smile more, I want to encourage some caution interpreting these findings. Because this is all correlational, it’s hard to say definitively that smiling makes people healthier, have better relationships, etc. It’s perfectly plausible that smilers are a particular breed. That is, maybe the smiling itself isn’t important, but smiling is just a sign of something deeper. The kind of person who smiles in their yearbook photo may just be the kind of person who is equipped to handle adversity and to seek out meaningful relationships.

These effects are also pretty subtle. It’s not that smilers are hugely more likely to be married and satisfied with their lives; they’re just somewhat (but reliably) more likely.

What I’m saying is that these studies are super interesting as a social scientist. They reveal something about the nature of emotion and human experience. They just don’t necessarily mean that smiling is a magic pill to make amazing things happen. But we’ll keep an eye out for more research!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  The researchers actually took advantage of an existing study that began in the late 50s and continues today. This study has given surveys to a sample of women who were enrolled at Mills College in the late 50s and have continued to keep in touch with these women over their whole lives.
2.  They also looked at players who had forced smiles. Those players’ life expectancy was in the middle, but it wasn’t clearly worse than genuine smilers or better than nonsmilers.
3.  For my notebook: “Smiling Fighters” is a great band name.

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