Importance of a smile

The importance of a smile has been long recognised and well researched. Smiling was essential to the evolution of the human species as a non-verbal sign of cooperation. As a smile is believed to be visible at up to 300 feet, prehistoric tribes could signal to each other that they were not a threat.

Recent surveys in Australia revealed that nine out of 10 people believe an attractive smile serves as a critical asset and about 90 percent of both women and men say that they remember someone with an attractive, healthy smile. 

Most people consider a person’s smile to be the most important feature when it comes to making a good first impression. According to a study conducted by worldwide market research firm Harris Interactive, 94 percent of men and women said they notice a person’s smile before noticing their eyes, height or their figure. Additionally, a person who is smiling is generally perceived to be friendly and approachable and an attractive smile connotes a certain type of personality. Other findings revealed that 64 percent agreed that people with a nice smile are more outgoing, and 71 percent felt that having an attractive smile is important for making new friends.

Smiling can also play a significant role in attracting the opposite sex. In 2009, research carried out by Orbit Complete for National Smile Month found that nearly 70 percent of men find women more attractive when they smile. Each woman was photographed twice, once wearing their everyday makeup and not smiling and once without makeup and smiling. The majority of both men (66 percent) and women (73 percent) believed a smile makes a woman more attractive than makeup.

Benefits of a smile

In psychology, there is a theory called the ‘facial feedback’ hypothesis, which states that facial movement can influence emotional experience. In simple terms, an individual may actually be able to improve their mood by simply smiling. For example, someone who is forced to smile during a social event will actually come to find it more enjoyable.

Charles Darwin was among the first to suggest that physiological changes caused by an emotion had a direct impact on, rather than being just the consequence, of that emotion.

A number of research projects support this hypothesis. A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Levenson and Friesen, found that involuntary biological changes similar to those caused by emotions were experienced by participants who were instructed to make certain faces. A person told to make an angry face experienced increased blood flow to the hands and feet, which is also felt in those who are genuinely experiencing anger.

A 2000 study by psychologists Stephen Davis and Joseph Palladino provided further support for the theory. Participants were either prevented or encouraged to smile by being instructed how to hold a pencil in their mouths. Those who held a pencil in their teeth and were able to smile rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held the pencil in their lips and therefore could not smile. The findings indicate that a smile can improve one’s mood and trigger positive emotions.

Numerous medical and psychological studies have found that through the triggering of certain hormones, a smile promotes good overall health. It can lead to lower heart rates, steady breathing and the ability to smile through stressful situations.

Smiling has been found to boost levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is a vital part of regulating our moods. There is a biological connection to elements of happiness in the production of serotonin. Smiling can also trigger the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins are released when laughing, exercising, eating chocolate and doing various other activities that can leave a smile on our face.

There are also health benefits for not just the person smiling but also for the viewer. Researchers at the British Dental Health Foundation conducted a study to measure how a smile can make us feel. After being shown pictures of smiling people, the brain and heart activity of participants was equal to the stimulation they would experience from eating 2,000 chocolate bars.

Another study by the University of Michigan found the direct link between a genuine smile and health. It revealed that optimistic people create a different biological makeup that boosts their immune system. The right attitude in life keeps you open to healthy ideas – and overall health means more smiles.

What makes a smile attractive?

Philosophers, scientists and ordinary people have long puzzled over what makes a face attractive, questioning whether there are objective standards of beauty or if beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Recent research conducted at Exeter University in the United Kingdom found that newborn babies show a marked preference for people with features that are conventionally judged as attractive by adults. It has been suggested that this in-built beauty template helps them to make sense of their new environment.

In the study almost 100 newborns were shown two images side by side, one showing an attractive face and the other a less attractive one. Around 80 percent of the time the babies looked exclusively at the ‘prettier’ face and this was repeated with male faces as well as faces of various ethnicities. ‘Attractiveness is not simply in the eye of the beholder; it is in the brains of newborn infants, right from the moment of birth and possibly prior to birth,’ says Dr Alan Slater, a developmental psychologist who led the study.

This predisposed bias to beauty applies to the smile as there are certain characteristics that are generally perceived as ‘attractive’. These include white, straight teeth, healthy looking gums, symmetry and proportion.

In the 1993 Journal of Dental Research, Dr Ronald Goldstein described certain parameters of a beautiful smile. The relationship between interpupillary line (an imaginary line connecting both pupils) and the occlusal plane (the imaginary surface on which upper and lower teeth meet) plays an important role. The study suggests this, ideally, should be parallel. The relationship between lips and face is another important factor. According to Dr Goldstein, lip symmetry adds to beauty while asymmetry subtracts.

The ancient Greeks found what they believed was a ‘Golden Ratio’ and used it in their architecture and art in order to make it aesthetically pleasing. The Golden Ratio is found in structures as diverse as the Pyramids in Egypt, violins, furniture, flower petals, the Parthenon in Athens and the United Nations Building in New York. When the rules of proportion are followed, the result is something that is naturally attractive and pleasing to the eye.

This concept suggests the importance of symmetry and proportion in an attractive smile. It can also be incorporated by restorative dentists for determining tooth size – for example, the height and width of the central teeth, or the proportion of front teeth to the others.

Smile your way to success

Various studies have shown that a beautiful smile will make someone perceived as more attractive. According to a 2009 study by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, an attractive smile can also make them appear more intelligent, interesting, successful and wealthy to others.

The participants were shown pictures of eight individuals and asked to quickly judge the people as to how attractive, intelligent, happy, successful in their career, friendly, interesting, kind, wealthy, popular with the opposite sex and sensitive to other people they were.

Two sets of photos were created, with each set showing four individuals before undergoing cosmetic dentistry and four after treatment. Two had mild improvements through cosmetic dentistry, two had moderate improvements and four had major improvements to their smiles. Respondents were not told that they were looking at dentistry, but were asked to rate each person for the 10 characteristics.

The results indicated that an attractive smile does have a broad range of benefits. After comparing their rating ‘after’ cosmetic dentistry to the ratings of the ‘before’ photos, it was evident that the change was most dramatic in the categories of attractive, popular with the opposite sex, wealthy and successful in their career. However, the change was also significant in all other areas. This means that those with an improved smile after cosmetic dentistry were also perceived to be more interesting, intelligent, sensitive, kind and friendly.

This evidence supports a theory known as the ‘halo effect’ or the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype. When someone is attractive, they are assigned many other positive attributes that have nothing to do with looks. Therefore, someone with an attractive smile is often perceived to hold other positive traits.

It is a common belief that straight teeth and an appealing smile help us succeed in many avenues of life – whether it be in business or attracting the opposite sex. As more people recognise the benefits of an attractive smile, the demand for cosmetic dentistry has risen. Teeth whitening procedures, for example, have increased by more than 300 percent over the past seven years.

A smile is one of the most important facial features. It may improve quality of life, both professionally and personally, and a correlation between a smile and success, confidence and good health has been identified. So always remember to smile – it may get you further than you think.