Many studies have shown that smiling is ‘contagious’ in both humans and monkeys, to the extent that when presented by a smiling face some test subjects not only naturally smiled, but found it difficult to form a frown. This empathic and automatic social response offers many social and health benefits. Smiling releases endorphins, which can in turn reduce stress, heart rate and blood pressure as well as giving us a feeling of well being. A recent study at the Wayne State University analysed the intensity of smiles of professional baseball players in a 1952 yearbook and compared their figures to the survival rate of the players. They found that in any given year, players with genuine smiles were only half as likely to die as those who did not.
An earlier study, at Berkeley, analysed photographs of 21 year old women and demonstrated that those with genuine smiles positively correlated to those who reported general well-being and marital satisfaction later in life. A later study connected low intensity smiles in youth with divorce in later life. This social phenomena is also supported by research like that at the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen, where both men and women were found to be more attracted to images of people who were smiling.
Many of the positive effects of smiles are attributed to ‘genuine smiles’, a distinction made by the French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne. The ‘Duchenne smile’ was later formalised by the University of California in their Facial Action Coding System, known as FACS, which is still used to identify when people are genuinely smiling, rather than putting one on: a useful distinction in social interaction and in determining honesty. However it is fiendishly difficult for most people to distinguish between the two. You can try your luck here, on the BBC website.
So smiling helps us to win friends and partners, and to maintain then, improves our sense of happiness as well as our health and longevity, and all from an empathic response to seeing a smiling face: even if it’s a drain cover and a stick.
Read more on the psychology of smiles, here.