The ol’ smile could be a little more powerful than you may think. Here’s why.
Smiling tells the world you’re happy. No matter what language you speak, a genuine smile is universally recognised as an expression of joy.
But smiles are much more powerful – and complicated – than simply communicating happiness. Not only can smiles convey a wide range of emotions (depending on how they are formed) but smiling can also generate positive social behaviour, promote happiness and even forge success.
Smiling and happiness
Whatever the reason for smiling, a number of psychologists have gone some way to demonstrate that not only does smiling communicate happiness but it can actually lead to feelings of happiness. It was Charles Darwin who, in the 19th Century, first proposed that facial expressions not only reflected emotions but caused them as well. However, until the 1980s, this hypothesis remained untested.
In 1989, a psychologist called Robert Zajonc studied the emotional effect of producing a smile. By asking his subjects to repeat vowel sounds, thereby forcing their faces into various expressions, he discovered that making the long ‘e’ sound, which stretches the corners of the mouth outward, patients felt good. Similarly, they felt bad when repeating the letter ‘u’, which forces the mouth out, into a pouting expression. Whilst this was perhaps the first study to firmly suggest a strong link between expression and emotion, a wealth of more recent evidence supports Zajonc’s findings.
According to Zajonc, changes to the facial muscles involved in smiling have a direct effect on brain activities associated with happiness. His theory – which remains unproven and often contested – is based on the relationship between brain temperature and activity. As a smile causes certain facial muscles to stretch and tighten, the amount of blood flowing through the carotid artery to the brain is restricted. As the blood volume drops, so too does the temperature of the brain, causing positive emotions.
Smiling has been found to boost levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is a vital part of regulating our moods. 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.
Smiling and success
We’ve all heard the expression ‘fake it ‘til you make it’, but it seems smiling can portray intelligence, interest, success and wealth, even where it is lacking.
In a study by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 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 10 years.
A smile is one of the most important facial expressions. It can 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!