Pump Up Your Smile!

'A smile is the shortest distance between two people.' - Victor Borge

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I was appalled to catch myself on a TV monitor inside an electronics store. The monitor was demonstrating the quality of a home surveillance system. It was sharp, clear, and accurate. When I stopped to check myself out I was stunned by the grumpy look on my face. Grumpy–as in one of the Seven Dwarfs grumpy. If ‘Cantankerous’ or ‘Sullen’ were one of the 7 characters they could have been contenders.

There weren’t many shoppers around so I practiced smiling. The difference was amazing. I indulged myself in becoming 3 of the dwarfs and transformed from Grumpy to Happy to Silly and spent some serious time experimenting with different faces–all the while watching in the monitor. When the salesman came by to see if I were interested in purchasing something–I immediately added a fourth to my repertoire and became Bashful. Somewhere in the mix I am certain he contemplated calling security. It isn’t usual to see a grown man making faces into a surveillance system in mid-town Manhattan.

The grumpy me looked like a face from the wanted flyers in the post office or on newspaper mug shots of the recently convicted– quite a disagreeable character. This is what bothered me most. My face didn’t match who I thought I was–and certainly didn’t seem to reflect how I felt. However, there it was–this is how I look to the world.

The message our face conveys is central to human development and social interactions. Cues from the mother’s face are among the first thing an infant notices to see if the surroundings are safe. If mom is smiling all is right with the world and the baby proceeds. If mom makes a frown–the infant goes on high alert. This is how a child begins to understand social cues. If a baby spotted Mr. Grumpy on the monitor I am certain shoppers would have been treated to a significant wailing.

It was Darwin who elaborated on the nature of a smile and the effect it has on one’s self and others. In the introduction to his book, Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin gave credit to the French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne for his unique description of the muscles involved in the expression of agreeable emotions. Darwin relied on the pioneering work of Duchenne, who made an interesting observation: There is a way of determining a genuine smile from a false one. The genuine smile (what scientists now refer to as a Duchenne smile) involves contraction of two major muscles. The zygomatic major muscle, which is responsible for raising the corners of the mouth, and the orbicularis oculi muscle that pulls the cheeks upward. When the latter happens it helps form crow’s feet–the little crinkles around the eyes. According to Duchenne raising the corners of the mouth is something that can happen by will. However, only “…the sweet emotions of the soul…” cause the second muscle to pull the cheeks upward to form crow’s feet. Duchenne believed that when we are experiencing a genuine positive emotion the eyes and the mouth are in sync.

Later research would show this genuine smile predicts a better marriage, less depression, and even living longer. In a famous 2001 longitudinal study researchers looked at Mills College yearbook photos of 114 women from the classes 1958 through 1960, all but three of the young women smiled. However, 50 had Duchenne smiles and 61 had non-Duchenne courtesy smiles.

Thirty years later the genuine smile group was more likely to get and stay married, and had higher scores on physical and emotional wellbeing. In 2010 scientists went a bit further. They studied the intensity of smiles in photographs of Major League Baseball players prior to 1950. They separated the photographs into three categories: no smile, partial smile, and a full Duchenne smile. Guess what? The bigger the smile–the longer the player lived.

However, the big news is they’ve found you can learn to generate a Duchenne smile. The results show that this can help you feel better–and has a major impact on how others see you.

To practice making your Duchenne smile first pull up the corners of your mouth (the ‘say cheese’ position). Now, flex your orbicularis oculi and pull up those cheeks until you see the crow’s feet form around your eyes. What science tells us is when you do this it will lower your heart rate and make you feel more positive emotions–but it also affects others. Studies have shown when you do this people will see you as more competent, more hirable, more intelligent, spontaneous, intense, agreeable, generous, and more attractive. One study even found that a Duchenne smile was more important than the clothes you wear.

My recommendation is to practice that Duchenne smile so you’ll be ready to use it. But please–use the bathroom mirror–not a surveillance monitor.

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