Smile Psychology

Charles Darwin (above) was one of the first to examine the science behind our smiles.

Just smile. Really. Try it. A simple smile can be the most powerful tool at our disposal… and we all have one.

But what is the science behind our smile?  What does smiling mean, why do we do it and how do others read our smile?

Believe it or not but it was our very own Charles Darwin who was one of the first to examine our smile. He noted that smiling is truly universal, unlike other physical actions such as body language, or verbal communication, which differs from culture-to-culture.  We all understand a smile and the feelings behind it.

Darwin also distinguished smiling from laughter (although he admitted that both often appear at the same time). He believed laughter was connected more with amusement whereas the smile was a greater sign of happiness.

And that’s very true.  After all, many of us smile because we’re happy and it conveys the emotion of joy to others.

But this is not always the case.  Sometimes we can be happy because we smile.

For a long time, scientists have linked emotions with changes occurring in the body, from an elevated heart rate to flexion of the zygomatic major muscle… that’s smiling to you and me.

It’s called ‘facial feedback hypothesis’. Our brains react to what our body is doing and it can have a knock on affect to our emotions. If we put on a smile, whether we’re genuinely happy or not, our brains will interpret it as happiness and our mood will change accordingly.

And here’s another fascinating piece of information… it takes 43 muscles to frown but only 17 to smile. So putting a smile on our face, whether we feel like it or not, it actually requires much less effort than sulking.

Smiles can be natural when we’re in a good mood, or likewise faked when we’re not.

They can be broad, sincere, dramatic or spontaneous. They can look different depending on what muscles we use in our face lips, cheeks or eyes. They can be warm and polite, symmetrical and endearing or cynical, miserable or lopsided.  In fact, scientists’ have found there are actually 14 different types of smile.

Our smile is the gatekeeper to how we are feeling about our life. Although, quiet often we have to dig a little deeper under the surface.

Isn’t it remarkable how our smiling face is often not very different from our tearful face? The phrase ‘crying with laughter’ comes to mind. We can smile when we’re shocked or embarrassed. Even when hearing sad news or a tragic event we sometimes smile, which is completely contradictory as to how we feel.

Despite this, most of us are pretty good at gauging another’s true intentions or emotions. We can put ourselves in their position, step into their shoes and imagine how they’re feeling without the need for them showing it. As a result we know whether a smile is genuine or not.

It’s important to remember that, even if we don’t feel happy, smiles really are infectious. So even if we don’t feel much happier, the people around us are more likely to smile, and that can improve our mood as well.

Many theorists have linked smiling with dominance. Research observing two people of different social ranks show that the dominant people smile more in ‘friendly situations’ but less in ‘unfriendly situations’.

Dominance in society can manifest itself in many different forms. From politicians to movie stars, athletes to doctors, law enforcement to teachers – all roles which have elements of power and all of these people use a smile to their benefit.

Many people, especially those in the public eye, actually practice smiling, as a good smile can increase their reputation and popularity. By practicing smiling many people can teach their muscles how to pull off the perfect smile at a moment’s notice. Of course a genuine smile needs no practice, but for those in the spotlight being pictured with an unflattering or disingenuous smile can have a negative reaction.  It’s all about muscle memory.

So there we go. A smile really can make you feel better, and make others respond more positively to you. With a smile you are more likely to succeed in what we do, from relationships to careers.  We can use a smile to show our positive feelings or mask our more negative ones. A smile really is one of man’s greatest gifts!