The Science of Smiling: A Guide to Human’s Most Powerful Gesture
Why did the Mona Lisa become one of the most famous paintings of all time? That’s a question an incredible amount of people have asked themselves in the past. And one possible answer is this: because of her unique smile.
The smile is is the “the symbol that was rated with the highest positive emotional content” concludes scientist Andrew Newberg. And for me personally, I’ve been very reluctant before embracing smiling. Only a few years back, when one of my teachers told me: “Why don’t you smile more? Go learn how to do it!”, I started to research learn about the actual power of smiling.
I had a brief moment of disbelief that anyone can learn how to smile better. And yet, since then, for many years, I practiced smiling in the mirror and on many other occasions. That’s a fact I’ve often been a little embarrassed to admit, yet the research of this post confirms how powerful practicing a bit of smiling can be.
After recently discussing which words matter the most when we talk, digging into the facts of smiling was one of the most mentioned suggestions. So here we go:
The science of smiling: What happens to our brain when we smile
Let’s say you experience a positive situation and you see a friend you haven’t met in a long time. This means that neuronal signals travel from the cortex of your brain to the brainstem (the oldest part of our brains). From there, the cranial muscle carries the signal further towards the smiling muscles in your face.
Sounds simple enough right?
And yet, that’s only where it starts. Once the smiling muscles in our face contract, there is a positive feedback loop that now goes back to the brain and reinforces our feeling of joy. To put more succinctly:
“Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure-inducer, cannot match.”
Smiling then, seems to give us the same happiness that exercising induces terms of how our brain responds. In short: our brain feels good and tells us to smile, we smile and tell our brain it feels good and so forth.
That’s why in a recent research scientists concluded “that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash.” Here is a brief description of the different muscles the cranial muscle activates in our face:
Real vs. Fake smiles – can we tell the difference?
Whenever we smile, there are 2 potential muscles we activate. The first one is the zygomaticus major and it controls the corners of your mouth. Whenever this muscle only is activated, it’s not actually a genuine smile. Scientists call this also the “social” smile. The second muscle, known to show sincerity is the obicularis occuli and it encircles our eye socket.
The true smile also called the duchenne smile, named after the famous scientist who first separated the “mouth corners”-only smile, from the “eye socket” one. Here is a comparison:
Our brain can in fact distinguish very easily between what’s real and what’s fake. In fact researcher Dr. Niedenthal argues there are 3 ways we can do so:
- Our brain compares the geometry of a person’s face to a standard smile
- We think about the situation and judge whether a smile is expected.
- Most importantly: We automatically mimic the smile, to feel ourselves whether it is fake or real. If it is real, our brain will activate the same areas from the smiler and we can identify it as a real one.
Niedenthal then experimented with how important it is to be able to mimic smiles and whether we could still tell the genuine smiles from the fake ones:
Dr. Niedenthal and her colleagues asked the students to place a pencil between their lips. This simple action engaged muscles that could otherwise produce a smile. Unable to mimic the faces they saw, the students had a much harder time telling which smiles were real and which were fake.
So the fact that we can’t try it for ourselves, leaves us almost unable to identify any smile as fake or real. Why is this so important though to know what and what doesn’t trigger us to understand smiling? Here are some more insights:
What smiling does to our health, success and feeling of happiness
Smiling can change our brain, through the powerful feedback loop we discussed above. And your brain keeps track of your smiles, kind of like a smile scorecard. It knows how often you’ve smiled and which overall emotional state you are in therefore.
Smiling reduces stress that your body and mind feel, almost similar to getting good sleep, according to recent studies. And smiling helps to generate more positive emotions within you. That’s why we often feel happier around children – they smile more. On average, they do so 400 times a day. Whilst happy people still smile 40-50 times a day, the average of us only does so 20 times.
Why does this matter? Smiling leads to decrease in the stress-induced hormones that negatively affect your physical and mental health, say the latest studies:
- In the famous yearbook study, they tracked the lives of women who had the best smiles in yearbook photos compared to the rest. Women who smiled the most lived happier lives, happier marriages and had fewer setbacks.Here is a sample of the women from the observed yearbook. I let you guess who was successful and who wasn’t:
- The baseball card study also found a clear correlation between how big a smile someone made on a baseball card photo and how long they would live. The people who smiled the most turned out to live 7 years longer than those who didn’t.
Of course, the above only shows a correlation, and not a causation. And yet, I can’t help but agree that smiling breeds trust, makes you happier and helps you to live longer.
And most importantly, smiling can be learnt. Or to put more precisely, re-learnt. Most of us forget how to smile genuinely over time, as we adopt social smiles more and more. Here is a guide to get your genuine, duchenne smile back:
A 3 step guide to a better smile
Imagine a situation of joy before an event:
One of the best ways to make your smile more genuine and real comes from researcher Andrew Newberg:
“We just asked a person, before they engage in a conversation with someone else, visualize someone they deeply love, or recall an event that brought them deep satisfaction and joy. It’s such an easy exercise, and we train people to do it in our workshops.”
Personally, I’ve tried to do the same experiment before a phone call or even before writing an email. I’ve found that people can always tell if you have a smile on your face, even if they don’t see you. I’ve even tracked how this improves response rates to emails I send for Buffer related feature suggestions or partnerships for example. That should most likely be another blogpost.
Practice smiling in front of the mirror
Here is something I’ve done for almost a few years in the morning: Stand in front of the mirror and smile. Practice to activate both your mouth corners and your eye sockets. You will know whenever your smile is genuine, because you will immediately feel happy and relaxed. The power of a smile, even practiced in the mirror is that it can invoke the emotion immediately.
Become comfortable with smiling
A lot of people (myself included!) see smiling as something that makes you weak. Personally, I’ve found that developing a better smile starts with being very comfortable to smile a lot. If in your head, you can imagine yourself going through the day and smiling lots to everyone and everything, that’s often when a happier life starts.
Yes, this might be just a small change in thinking. And yet, for me personally, that was the most important part to smile more every day.
Quick last fact: Women smile more than Men, here is why
Here is something interesting. Researcher LaFrance concluded that overall women smile a lot more than men. This comes not just from the fact that they might be happier, but also, that socially, it is more acceptable for women to smile, she says. And it doesn’t stop there:
“In general women are more accurate than men in detecting what is really going on with someone by looking at their face and listening to their voice. Women are more likely to tell the difference between a felt and a fake smile.”
Smiling is definitely more than just a contraction of muscles in your face. In fact Mother Teresa’s “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” reaches probably even further than imagined. What have you discovered about smiling? I’d love your insights on this.
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