Smiling is one of the instinctive responses that characterizes us as humans, the most notorious expression of joy and happiness, but also fear or anxiety. Because there are many smiles —up to 18 according to the prestigious psychologist, anthropologist, and researcher of facial expressions Paul Ekman— but not all of them, of course, translate into positive emotions.
Next, we inquire about the power of the smile explained by psychology, indicating the various benefits that the smile brings to the human being from a physical and psychological point of view, as well as a social one, without avoiding the harmful effects of the fake smile.
The pioneers in the study of the smile
The French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne was one of the forerunners in the study of facial expressions, with special emphasis on the analysis of the smile. Despite his controversial methods—it is said that he used the severed heads of criminals to test his mechanisms of electric currents to force expressions—Duchenne laid the groundwork for the physical and psychological study of the smile in his 1862 book Mechanisme de la Physionomie Humaine.
This work led to the coining of the term ‘Duchenne smile’ as a synonym for an honest smile that is associated with pleasure and happiness, which, on a physical level, involves not only the use of the muscles of the mouth but also of the eyes. . This distinction paved the way for differentiating the true smile from the ‘false’ smile.
According to Duchenne, the type of smile could be detected by looking into the eyes: the false smile is produced by voluntary muscular activation while the true smile is due to an impulse from the basal ganglia of the brain in response to processes of the limbic system. In other words: the mouth can be fake, and the eyes can’t.
Building on Duchenne’s findings, Carney Landis, a psychology student at the University of Minnesota, published a much-commented study in 1924 in which he failed to directly connect smiling with the expression of positive emotion, considering it a “perennial response, typical of any situation.
Paul Ekman collected these previous studies and promoted the analysis of human facial expressions establishing that all human beings smile in similar situations regardless of their culture, a conclusion was drawn from studies such as the one he carried out on a New Guinea tribe that had had very close contact. limited to the West.
Physical and psychological benefits of smiling
Healthcare and technology entrepreneur and Stanford professor Ron Gutman often assert that “a smile can generate the same level of stimulation as 2,000 bars of chocolate. ” Although there are those who would choose the bars instead of the smile, it is still a very graphic way of illustrating the physical and psychological benefits of smiling, starting with brain activity itself.
Smiling releases endorphins, serotonin, and other natural pain relievers that help increase well-being, just as occurs in other activities such as physical exercise. Likewise, smiling also reduces the levels of hormones responsible for stress such as cortisol or adrenaline itself. And if you don’t believe it, try it yourself: in a situation of relative stress, sit down, relax and try to think of something positive, try to smile. You will see that the situation changes perspective.
Along these same lines, the act of smiling is one of the tools we have to promote relaxation. Smiling loosens and relativizes so that our smile is capable of reassuring a tense situation.
In this way, smiling is also a good strategy to prevent sadness and depression, by generating positive and pleasant moods. In this sense, smiling is also an excellent physiological homeostasis mechanism: smiling is a way to restore both our physiological and psychological balance.
Social benefits of smiling
Smiling makes us more attractive, both physically and personally. A study from the University of Rochester analyzed the judgment of physical attractiveness through the sample of different photographs of people to 100 university students, concluding that people who appear smiling are rated as more attractive.
Indeed, the seductive power of a smile is unquestionable, but also, on a social level, a smile is synonymous with reliability, sincerity, and serenity. In this sense, the smile is also associated with charisma, as we repeatedly see in people who are highly exposed socially, such as politicians or actors. And it is that the smile also increases credibility, always, of course, depending on the context.
Of course, the smile is also contagious, which offers us various benefits in our relationships with others, establishing a kind of emotional feedback. We feel better when we see people smile around us, and we make others feel better when they see us smile.
An interesting study delves into the contagious power of smiling by investigating the behavior of people in public settings when they see facial expressions such as frowning or their smile: “more than half of the subjects responded with a smile to a smile from an unknown, while few responded to a frown with a frown. ” Of course, in certain situations, someone can take a smile badly, but as a general rule, we find it pleasant to be smiled at, even when it comes to strangers.
The negative effects of a fake smile
As we pointed out at the beginning of this article, there are many smiles, and not all of them translate into positive emotions, happiness, joy, or hilarity. There is also the smile as an expression of other emotions such as fear, shame, courtesy, deception, or artifice. That is, to smile as a defense mechanism, or to pretend and deceive, which comes to be ‘posturing’, as it is graphically designated in our time.
In this sense, it is worth remembering the studies on the origin of this facial expression in apes: experts point out that bonobo chimpanzees show a kind of smile when they feel fear, a gesture of submission by individuals of lower status to reassure the dominators of the group. Following this line of research, the first human smile would not be one of happiness, but of fear.
In this regard, there would be an original and instinctive smile and a cultural smile learned and executed consciously and voluntarily as a social and communication tool. A study analyzes this second kind of smile in the workplace, offering very significant conclusions.
Researchers at Michigan State University studied the behavior of bus drivers— they have frequent and courteous interactions with many people— concluding that on days when smiles were shallower, the worker’s mood deteriorated rapidly. Do not hesitate, an excess of fake smiles to hide negative emotional states is counterproductive: do not feel forced to smile (permanently) if it is not what you feel.