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The Psychology of Smiles

Some say that the eyes are the window to the soul, but they’re not alone in that job. Your smile can actually affect your own disposition and indicate all kinds of subtle (and not so subtle) social cues to the world around you. Whether you’re the Mona Lisa or the Cheshire Cat, your smile says a lot about who you are and how you’re feeling.

Different Styles for Different Smiles

Psychologists, writers and thinkers of all sorts have tried to define the various smiles that cross our faces each day. But few have the authority of Psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman, who has done more research on smiles than just about anyone.

His findings are fascinating. To him, there are automatic, uncontrollable smiles and then there are those smiles that we consciously create.

The basic “true” smile is the felt smile, which cannot be faked. It comes involuntarily from amusement, pleasure, joy or affection, and uses muscles from all over the face, including the eyes.

Then there’s the dampened smile. This happens when we try to fight the felt smile, and can often be detected around the corners of the eyes. Some other non-deliberate smiles include the miserable smile, a tightening of the face indicating a feeling of stoicism, and the flirtatious smile that indicates embarrassment and usually involves looking away from the person you’re smiling at.

Ekman also acknowledges that many intentional smiles demonstrate social cues, such as the qualifier smile, used when delivering bad news to take the edge off. It often prompts a return smile from the recipient, perhaps diffusing an otherwise nasty situation (also known as a compliance smile). Every deliberate smile is a tool. No doubt you’ve used a few yourself when chatting with a co-worker or negotiating your way up to first class from coach.

Spot the Phonies

With all these smiles flying around, how can you tell when someone is being genuine? Are your in-laws truly happy to see you? Did your dentist actually approve of your new ground-breaking flossing technique? It can be tough to judge. Here are a few basic things to look for:

Duration: Fake smiles tend to last longer. Most natural smiles don’t stay plastered for more than a few seconds. They’ll come and go if they’re genuine.

Assembly speed: Genuine smiles blossom across the face relatively slowly. Fake smiles snap into position.

Area: Involuntary smiles use the eyes as much as the mouth. The faker the smile, the fewer parts of the face it will use.

Symmetry: If the smile only appears on half the face, it’s either a rude smirk or a fake smile.

Fake It ’til You Make It

Studies have shown that even a fake smile can have positive psychological effects. You smile when you’re happy, but you can also be happier just by smiling.

Facial expressions are tied strongly to the hypothalamus, the part of our brain associated with emotion. Physically expressing an emotion amplifies its effects. For example, researchers at the University of Cardiff actually determined that people who were unable to frown due to localized Botox injections were actually happier, on average, than those whose frowns came freely.

Whatever smile you flash, we’ll help you make it shine. Make an appointment.