The Power of a Smile

cropped at our wedding reception 1-27-85
Bride and Groom flash Duchenne smiles at this 1985 wedding as celebrants dance around them in a circle

My gosh, there’s a lot to put one in a crummy mood. The political scene is discouraging, the news tells of division, racial conflicts, war and corruption. Our own families provide the counterpoint, but everyone’s going a hundred ways. How do you keep things positive?

Start by shaping your own face.

Here’s an example. Walking down the hall at the gym, you see someone you don’t know coming toward you. There’s that awkward second when you wonder if you should make eye contact, ignore the person and keep going, or smile and say ‘hi’ as you pass. What’s your response?

If you chose to smile, you’re increasing your own chances for a pleasant workout, and in fact, a great day.

By now everyone’s familiar with the many studies that show smiling alone causes physiological reactions in the body, releasing dopamine, endorphins and serotonin that lift your mood and the moods of everyone who sees you, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and act as natural pain relief. Other research shows myriad social benefits. Your smile makes others think you’re more attractive, and causes them to respond with a smile of their own. In the workplace, your smile makes others deem you more warm and approachable—and tilts customers toward greater satisfaction (though there’s conflicting data about whether your grin makes others think you more competent).

Merely moving your face into a big smile brings emotional and health perks, whether or not it’s sincere. In a clever University of Kansas study, subjects misled to think they were in a multi-tasking trial were measured for stress while holding chopsticks various ways in their teeth. With the sticks creating a wide smile, subjects had less stress while completing difficult tasks than when their mouths held neutral or less broadly-smiling poses. But even the less-wide smilers recovered from stressful tasks more quickly than subjects with unsmiling mouths.

This study shows that just the formation of a smile, even if it’s unrelated to genuinely happy emotions, has a positive impact. Forcing a smile against a person’s will—such as employees required to offer “service with a smile” even when annoyed—is less beneficial than when you embrace the act, other research shows. In our everyday lives, when we choose a happy countenance for whatever reason, we’ll reap several levels of reward.

This is particularly true in family life. When a couple is enduring a conflict, or a difficult situation that tests their relationship, they can mitigate a schism simply by consistently greeting the other with a smile. It’s a strategy for overcoming nearly every type of sourness. Even when tough situations require deeper resolution, you can build a partnership in tackling them by showing regard in this painless way.

Julie looks down at her phone and sees the incoming call is her husband. “Hey, it’s the sweetest guy in the universe!” she answers, rather than just saying “Hi, hon.” The smile implicit in her enthusiastic greeting sets the tone for the interchange, as Julie’s spouse instantly envisions her smiling face. As explained in my book Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage (2017), if you’re feeling bored with your relationship, or irritated at something your mate has done, you can regain some positive feelings instantly just by raising your lips.

Do a “Duchenne”

But did you know that you can get the best reaction with one particular type of smile? Even a perfunctory grin improves any encounter, but the configuration formed by the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi muscles together, called the Duchenne smile, most effectively brings an uptick in joy. The French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne wrote in 1862 that the orbicularis oculi acts in response to “the sweet emotions of the soul,” involving the upper face, eyes crinkling while twinkling. His namesake grin was finally quantified in the 1970s by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, who developed muscular coordinates for 3,000 facial expressions–allowing subsequent researchers to validate the power of the Duchenne smile.

Diane's high school photo, name cropped out
Duchenne smiles in a college yearbook were found to predict life success

A 30-year longitudinal study found that women wearing Duchenne smiles in their college yearbook photos turned out to have greater marital satisfaction and overall well-being at age 52. A related study correlated low-intensity smiles in youth with later propensity to divorce. A third piece of research found that professional baseball players flashing Duchenne smiles in their 1952 yearbook were half as likely to die by 2006 as their more somber-looking cohort.

This type of smile conveys and creates its sincerity. If you truly want to engender happiness, do a Duchenne.

Being Jewish, I’m conscious of the mitzvah—commandment—called in Hebrew “sayver panim yafos.” Jews are instructed to greet others with a happy countenance, a directive thousands of years old that has meant greater odds for positive interactions.

Sometimes we eye someone and normally don’t think to smile. In our culture, old or infirm people tend to be marginalized. Children, too, are often disregarded. We’ve got an unconscious bias toward the potent and strong. One exercise I’ve found spiritually uplifting is to intentionally smile and look in the eyes of all whom I encounter—especially if it means facing downward toward a wheelchair. Each person is worthy and valuable, and our power to enhance their moments—while adding to our own—is as close as a smile.

References: Study on ‘service with a smile’: being forced to smile lowers job satisfaction (most useful source for writing this), by Eric Jaffee Study on reactions to Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles Study showing Duchenne smilers are more successful, less divorce study showing impressions of smiling women higher than if not smiling study shows smiles predict longevity.



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