A recent, beautiful photo of Xenia Tchoumitcheva taken by photographer Pino Gomes (who aptly called it “Mona Lisa“) made me want to research about smiling.
Consider the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa. Is it real? How does a real smile differ from a fake one? Do newborns know this? Does smiling make us live longer? Why do we smile?
There is a lot of research in this field.
Smiles may be natural or faked. The broad, genuine, expressive, spontaneous smile can be defined physiologically in terms of what muscles do to different parts of the face lips, cheeks or eyes.
In “The surprising Psychology of Smiling” (Psychology Today), Adrian Furnham explains the difference between a genuine and a faked smile. Fake smiles are used for various purposes often to pretend to show enjoyment, or sociability or agreement. These are easily noticeable because they involve the mouth and not the eyes. Technically we can define the physiological difference between a genuine and fake smile: two muscles are involved (zygomatic major and orbicularis oculi). Real smiles involve both muscles and fake smiles the former but not the latter. Fake smiles involve the mouth more than the eyes: they are, in a sense, only half the story.
Furnham also mentions that Police studies have shown many times that people accused of serious (smuggling) and less serious crimes (speeding) tend to smile more and more genuinely when innocent than those later proved to be guilty. You can detect false of counterfeit smiles by looking for four things:
1.Duration. How long it lasts. False smiles last longer
2.Assembly. They are put together (eyes, mouth) and taken apart more quickly that real smiles
3.Location. False smiles are “voluntary” and involve mainly the lower part of the face whereas read “involuntary” smiles involve as much the upper part of the face around the eyes and eyebrows
4.Symmetry. If the smile appears more of one side of the face (often the right side) it is more likely to be false.
Even newborns can dispense and interpret facial expressions with great precision. Babies born blind smile like sighted infants. We begin smiling at five weeks: babies learn that crying gets attention of adults but smiling keeps it. At just 10 months, an infant will offer a false smile to an approaching stranger while reserving a genuine, so called “Duchenne”smile (named after the researcher who first discovered its characteristics)for its mother. Gender, culture, social norms will slowly affect these behaviours.
Another definition of a fake smile comes from Wikipedia: The Pan Am smile, also known as the “Botox smile“, is the name given to a fake smile, in which only the zygomatic major muscle is voluntarily contracted to show politeness. It is named after the airline Pan American World Airways which went out of business in 1991, whose flight attendants would always flash every jet-setter the same perfunctory smile. Botox was not introduced for cosmetic use until 2002.
So here you are: can you interpret the Mona Lisa Smile? Does it involve her eyes?
Psychologists have been researching many more aspects of smiling. For example, a study published in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology highlights the different ways that Americans and Japanese perceive smiles. When viewing emoticons, Americans located expression at the mouth, seeing as happy and as sad, while Japanese found it in the eyes, seeing ^_^ as joyful and ;_; as tearful. The variation may reflect an American tendency to express emotions and a Japanese tendency to suppress them; after all, as Duchenne knew, the mouth can be manipulated into a smile more easily than the eyes (The Observer, The psychological study of smiling).
In another study, published this year in Psychological Science, Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger of Wayne State University studied the relationship between smiling and longevity. Abel and Kruger rated the smiles of professional baseball players captured in a 1952 yearbook, then determined each player’s age at death (46 players were still alive at the time of the study). The researchers found that smile intensity could explain 35 percent of the variability in survival; in fact, in any given year, players with “Duchenne” (real) smiles in their yearbook photo were only half as likely to die as those who had not.
There is also a lot of evidence of body language mirroring. We automatically copy the facial expressions of others. We reciprocate and in social groups it can be contagious. People respond to, and evaluate, those who smile differently and more positively than those who do not. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone”. This is even truer of laughter and is evidence of a feedback loop. Smiling has hormonal and physiological consequences which make us feel better and want to smile more. Smiling self medicates and heals, boosts your immune system, lowers your blood pressure, releases endorphines and serotonine, lifts your face and makes you look younger, and helps you stay positive.
So… try it now: smile!