The Science of Smiling: A Guide to Human’s Most Powerful Gesture

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mona lisaWhy 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:

smile

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:

pic1

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:

pic2

  • 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.

  • Sacha B. Nice

    Excellent Blog

    • LeoWid

      glad you like it Sacha!

      • Connie Mager

        I love this blog and I’m going to share it with friends and co-workers. It is so well written and factual that all readers would be hard pressed not to come to the same conclusion. [that smiling is good for us] I was just discussing with my partner about how we rarely get sick anymore. We decided that a healthier diet and the many times we laugh and smile throughout the day has had a huge impact on our immune system. Being happy breeds more happiness in our lives.
        Thank you for sharing such valuable information with everyone.

  • http://twitter.com/JenMcGahan Jen McGahan

    Oh, how matters effortlessly fall into place when we smile! Thanks for the reminder. As Guy Kawasaki (whose beaming smile I have never seen first-hand) says often in his book Enchantment: “Make crows feet.”

    • LeoWid

      Hi Jen, so great to have you stop by here and yes, that’s exactly right, Guy really emphasises it, I think that is also one of the key reasons I was inspired to write about it! :)

  • ilijusin

    Being positive and more optimistic, living “in the moment” (stop over-thinking, just doing), not worrying about stuff (not giving a fu*k) and laughing and smiling more. All these factors contributed to an overall happier life I’ve been enjoying for about two years now.

    If you want more happiness and joy in your life than smiling is definitely a good start, since other things mentioned above require not just change in your behavior but also your mindset. Of course to really achieve a long-term genuine smile you need to switch your mindset too, but as this great article suggests, smiling directly affects your brain, thus making the mindset-shift easier.

    Besides making your life happier, smiling will drastically improve your social life too. I’ve probably had more small talks with random strangers and meet more people on various parties/gatherings over last two years, than I did in all the previous years of my life.

    Stay positive!

  • denysedd

    Leo, wish you would write more frequently. Your blogs always make such interesting reading and I learn so much, it would be great to have them to look forward to every day – I know a born optimist me!

    Anyway thanks a million for this smile, great work.

  • turtle burgler

    turtles

  • the negative man

    i hate smiling.

  • roars

    the turd burgler is here for ur smiles

  • Buttons the cat

    once upon a time there was a lonely cat. Her name was buttons. She never smiled. the end.

  • Buttons the cat

    I forgot to mention she was fat.

  • Buttons the cat

    and liked dogs

  • trollol

    Smiling makes me sad.

  • depressed and sad

    smiling makes me depressed.

  • troll

    depression hurts sembalta can help

  • depressed and sad

    lies! girls dont smile more.

  • http://www.zoomver.com/ Rohit Agarwal

    Science is like a universe, still we know only its 0.0000009% …… I must its very nice blog i found.

  • http://www.upperlinefinancial.com H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP®

    I’ve been following Dr. Ekman’s facial work for a long time, and I really appreciate when people can take facial concepts that are important and present them to the public in a manner that is digestible but not oversimplified. Great job!

  • Robbie Williford

    This is such a great article. I plan on bookmarking it, not only because it’s great, but because I have friends who I tell to smile more often and this article gives me something to show them as to why smiling more is beneficial. It’s something so small yet so rewarding and people don’t even know it.

    Thank you so much for this. I love it.

  • Helmy

    I discovered that a lot of people think they smile often, while in reality they don’t. And that when you smile in general you always get smiles back!!

  • Edwin Yip

    Great post backed up by science research reports!

  • http://www.scienceofpeople.org/ Vanessa Van Edwards

    I love this article! The importance of smiling is undervalued. Plus there is all kinds of research on smiling and power. Typically people in power positions smile less, but will return smiles if they perceive the other person to be a subordinate–who knew!

    Thanks for the article!

  • xxcvb

    xbvxcvbxcvbxcvb

  • Dorothy

    Thanks for this piece . I have teenager who claims he cannot smile and is very self conscious about his smile and always hides his smile behind his hand or forces his lips not to smile. I am going to have him read this article and hope that he will learn to smile. Thanks again .

  • SelectiveSecurities

    Also worthy of note, The Origin of the Smile:

    Bearing Teeth

    Humans, as well as primates, would bear their teeth when interacting with others.

    Teeth closed together communicated peaceful intentions and acceptance, with no desire to bite.

    Teeth parted, however, was viewed as more aggressive, and threatening.

    It is fascinating how this form of communication evolved into what it symbolizes today.

  • Moonleaf

    How do you end a smile?

  • Edward Carr

    In E Rejuvenation, we also teach our clients to smile :)

    We explain it’s good for health, business and energy.

    We do a lot more than that too! We teach how to be really happy, how to be really peaceful, creative etc etc.

  • Zirah B L Hearn

    Great post! Will share the info on my health blog.

  • Vicky Mandap

    thanks a lot for this. we’ll post an excerpt from this for our facebook page. and we will acknowledge your blog.

  • Christiana Adewale

    Definitely agree with this article but I myself find it very hard especially with teeth because of the multiple gaps (I have 5+) in my teeth, they’re very depressing. They make it hard for me to get hired and to make new friends. I love to smile when I’m by myself or with close family otherwise I use a closed mouth grin everywhere else. Tried making a funding page so that I could fix them but finding it very hard to get views and I would appreciate a visit to through the link. Smiling is one the best non verbal expressions we have and I would really love to smile in public. Please visit, you don’t have to donate but please share it.
    http://fundanything.com/en/campaigns/bridging-my-gaps

  • Johana Goyes Vallejos

    I would love to smile more, but I have horrible teeth. So every time I smile I remember how horrible my teeth are and then smiling instead of make me happy makes me more aware of my non attractiveness. Also I’ve notice that my smile is crooked, like one side I my face is paralyzed (which is not). This is not nice either, so ….any advice?

    • Dylan

      Crooked smiles can be very endearing! They bring a unique kind of character that you don’t get from a typical smile!

    • Liz at Human Nature

      I have to say that I think genuine smiles can’t be beaten, regardless of teeth or crooked smiles. It’s the genuineness of it that makes it beautiful.

      But I do get where you are coming from. Have you tried practising smiling with your eyes, but with your mouth closed? I find I get a positive effect from engaging even these muscles, particularly the ones around my eyes. You could also try the Qi Gong Inner Smile exercise, which is explained quite well here http://www.aquieterplace.com/cms/index.php/qi-gong/inner-smile/ – I’m sure that this will have the similar positive effects but as you can do this exercise on your own, there’s no need to be self conscious, even if you end up smiling with your teeth showing. :)

    • septimus

      I think you look very pretty when you smile

  • Liz at Human Nature

    Lovely article, thanks! I really liked this bit “imagine yourself going through the day and smiling lots to everyone and everything, that’s often when a happier life starts.” – I have always imagined myself smiling at work, right from when I got my first job behind a bar. I had so many happy customers, and was often complimented on my smile. I never felt I was doing anything special, but the feedback I got suggested that people simply weren’t used to seeing someone looking so happy, and it made them feel good to see it! The very real impact was that I usually got really good tips…. :)

    But it has helped me in every job, and every business I have had. Not to mention the effect it has on me personally.

    • John Schroeder

      My favorite was also the “imagine yourself going through the day and smiling lots …” it’s a great smile inducing activity . I have been just smiling a lot at things and people and the people really like it – mostly :) – and I LOVE IT, I am 70 3/4 years old and feel younger each time I smile!

  • Victoria Barrow

    im smiling now… :D

  • Katie

    Fascinating article! Especially interesting to me that we mimic other people’s smiles in social situations in order to trigger whatever their muscles are triggering, to evaluate how “real” the smile is.

    Interesting side note for me, too, is the distinction between “mouth only” smiles and “real” smiles that engage the eye muscles. It offers an explanation that helps me to understand some of my own sense of social discomfort that has arisen since I contracted Graves disease. Both the disease and the eight eye surgeries I’ve had as a result have scarred my eye muscles, and they don’t move as easily and smoothly as they used to. I’m often conscious of my expressions in a way that I never was before Graves. Even though people have told me that, since the surgeries, my eyes look quite normal, I’ve continued to feel hyper-conscious of them when I’m interacting with people. This article makes sense of that reaction—my eye muscles are having trouble responding fluidly to effect the smile I’m feeling but having trouble expressing, and my brain knows it. In other words, I’m feeling a disconnect between what my smiling muscles want to do and what they actually are doing. (I’m not sure that this is what’s going on, but it makes more sense than anything else that I’ve been able to come up with.)
    Thanks for a great article!

  • Blue Otis

    if it’s genuine why do you need to learn it?

  • Anthony

    It also helps to think positive thoughts about the person you are interacting with when trying to achieve a genuine smile. In most cases, you’ll be able to see the difference in the attitude of that person almost immediately.

  • Pocket Smile

    Love this article! Another thing that the article did not touch upon is that smiles are contagious. It is actually hinted at in the part with why we feel happier around children, they smile more, which in turns makes us smile more because smiles make other people smile. So the easiest and most effective way to spread happiness is simply to smile at people!

    We are scientists at University College London and have created Pocket Smile which is a simple app that shows you smiling faces throughout the day and sees if it can boost your happiness with a monthly questionnaire! Check it out, it is totally free and for science: http://www.pocketsmile.icn.ucl.ac.uk

  • Jahara Belducea

    Great info !!! :) KEEP SMILING ;)

  • i am the best

    i smile all the time.. i smile so much if i’m not smiling people think i’m upset or sad understand because 90% of the time i’m smiling. like at work 7hours shift of complete smiling, but i have done it all my life. i look in the mirror sometimes and feel normal, not happy or sad, yet my face says happy. sometimes it makes me wonder if something is wrong with me, oh-well no-one says anything bad. must look normal :D

    • Georgie!

      Lol Love this!

  • http://fizadawn.com Dawn

    Excellent about smile, I love to smile and have been doing since a kid… I remember few conservative people used to comment on my smile saying how loud and open is her laughter …but I always felt I laugh from heart and I am happy you can tell there is no fake :) I am sure your blog will help many people find a reason to smile :)
    Cheers
    Dawn

  • Joseph Arsenault

    Very nice.
    In spanish, smiling is sonrisa, which sounds like sun rise. The rising in the warmth of a beautiful, genuine smile in someone you are attracted to. It has led me to where I am today. It is so powerful in that way. Because in the smiles I have chased, there are undescribable promises. It makes me dream and so gives me hope. If anything, it will have made me live a wholesome, deeply happy life. And it goes on. I imagine it, am inspired by my own desires to meet one who would tell the things I feel, and eventually, I find it, yet again, better each time..like an ongoing story that evolves towards yet higher reaches. Like dawn, it can be a subtle sign which, immaterial, on an expressive face, chases the shadows away, shyly revealing the magic of smile.

  • Blah

    Smiling makes people think you’re confident; that you actually know what you’re doing. They like your smile; you’re friendlier, happier, and it makes you appear more attractive and approachable– So long as your smile is genuine and not creepy. It can brighten someone’s day, since we tend to emulate the duchenne smile. It also makes us feel happier. Smiling can go a long way, and it can’t hurt! :)

  • B Myles

    I learnt as a child that a happy smiling face gives you a better time than an ugly unsmiling crotchety type of face….and I have used that since then happily……..

  • Tanveer Ghumman

    I ve tried..it really works…thanks LeoWid, you ve contributed to my well being…M indebted to you.

  • Philip O’Connell

    For a few years now I’ve been using a funny moment to spark a smile when needed. I never understood the science behind it, or thought of it specifically as a “situation of joy”, but it totally is. I remember a specific funny one-liner that a friend dropped spontaneously into conversation back in high school that without fail still makes me smile (even right now). It’s funny enough that I have to hold back a laugh all these years later, and I use it every time I’m in an uncomfortable situation (mostly group introductions) because I’ve realized how a single person looking relaxed and happy during an awkward moment can put everyone at ease.
    Anyways, I’m glad to learn I’m not a crazy person for doing it and that there’s some science to support my theory. :)
    Thanks for the good read, Leo!

  • Dlniyaz Hawezi

    Amazing blog , i’ll use it for my scientific debate if u don’t mind !!

    • Romeo Cisneros

      Damn girl, you are cute…smiling already. ;)

  • Romeo Cisneros

    In my opinion, its harder to smile here in the states. Most people feel conscious about their teeth because people here are so judgmental. When i look at other countries and their pictures, people are smiling regardless of how nice their teeth look. This was a great article, more than what i expected.

  • https://www.facebook.com/julia.saltzer Julia Saltzer

    What a Great Article LeoWid…I have been told I smile all the time & people(friends) ask how this is possible as I have been fighting MS for over 30 years now. Maybe I believe the more I smile the more my chances are to kill this nasty disease…Because I will never give-up until there is a cure! I really enjoyed reading your article. Thank you

  • Agi

    is this all adapted/taken from Ron Gutman’s TED talk…?

  • Sarah

    I facilitated/lead a group called “Smile Therapy” for people who were living at a very nice Assisted Living Center. It happened quite by accident … the Activity Director said she wanted me to do a group there, and I said “Arts & Crafts, Meditation ??” She said “No, we have those .. its’ something else you’re going to teach” … and out of my mouth I said “Smile Therapy” — I was joking !! And she said ‘that’s it …. I’m putting it on the calendar !!” I said “No, I don’t even know what I’d be doing …. it’s a JOKE!!” She said, “Ok, call me in the next couple of weeks BEFORE I send the calendar out and let me know what you really want to do.” Several weeks went by, and I forgot to call …. and the calendar came out !! I thought what the heck, I’ll go and see what happens …. !! I showed up and it ended up having MORE people in the group than any other group they had had !!! They were ALL curious to see what SMILE THERAPY was !!! (me, too:) !! I just started sharing … what I knew about smiling and had them close their eyes so they wouldn’t feel funny at first smiling for ‘no reason’ …. Each week I would either get an idea for the group while getting dressed, or driving there in the car , and most often ‘in the moment’ … the energy of the group !! This group continued for 2 1/2 years !!! And every week it had a LOT of people and word spread. The Activity Director said — ‘people are coming out of depression and you are stimulating brain activity’ !!! I was just ‘showing up’ and playing in the moment … and sometimes funny …. lots of SMILING and LAUGHING … SO I KNOW it works !!! I don’t know that I could re-create it … as it was so spontaneous. The corporation that owned the Assisted Living places called me after I had left and wanted to know if I had a ‘lesson plan or curriculum’ that I could send to others to use …. but of course I didn’t … because I just made it up as I went along …. LOL !!! SMILE SMILE SMILE !!!

  • Allina Schmeltzer

    I recently read a fact that said women smile 60 times a day and men only 10 times. Do you think this to be accurate? Or is it just proven the women smile more, its probably hard to put an actual number on it due to the personality’s of people and what is going on during there lives if they were to conduct a study, right?