Image: “The Sun” by Yue Minjun

If you put a baby monkey in front of two human beings that it doesn’t know, and one of them smiles at it and the other one doesn’t, the animal will always make for the person who is smiling. The reason is simple: smiling is a form of social glue. Smiling brings us closer to others (and to the whole family of mammals, one might add). Obviously, we are talking here about genuine smiles, and not the artificial kind which are insincere and which we can all recognize. What’s more, new research is now revealing that smiling has more benefits than we might ever have imagined. Ron Gutman, who is an expert in smiles, can help us to find out about them. Ron has been studying the phenomenon of smiling for years, and he has recently disseminated the fruits of his research in the article The Untapped Power Of Smiling, published in Forbes magazine, and the TED talk which he gave in 2011. Together with him, the scientist LaFrance and Dr. Niedenthal and his team are revolutionising the world of science with their studies on smiling. Let’s have a look at some of their most important conclusions.

Tell me how you smile, and I’ll tell you how long you will live.

In 2010, researchers at Wayne State University examined the records of basketball players who’d been active in the major U.S. leagues before the 1950s, along with their photos. They wanted to look into the data on each player and to try to establish possible connections with how long they had lived. They came up with a surprising finding: the size of each player’s smile was a predictor of the length of his life. The players who didn’t smile in the photos lived on average 72.9 years, while those who had a broad smile on their face lived on average to the age of 80. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the equation smiling = a long life is completely correct. When a person tends to smile a lot, there are underlying emotions which help to increase their life expectancy, as we’ve seen in previous posts.

Smiling is universal: both in the modern urban world and in isolated tribes, people smile a lot.

Paul Ekman, the most important researcher into facial expressions in history, published a book in 1980 that contained a series of studies into the facial expressions of the tribes in Papua New Guinea. Ekman, a man full of curiosity, took an interest in the Fore tribe, owing to the fact that they had been completely cut off from Western culture (and because they were known for their cannibalistic rituals… which Ekman didn’t speak about). He found that the members of the tribe smiled in the same situations as we do in the West. He concluded that all humans often smile to express enjoyment and satisfaction and that smiling is not culture-specific.

Depending on the culture, smiling is identified more with the mouth or with the eyes.

An innovative study into emoticons has brought to light new information about the different way that smiling is perceived in the West and the East. Whereas Europeans and Americans identify smiling with the mouth [ 😉 or ;( ], the Japanese identify it with the eyes [ ^_^ or ;_; ].

We find it difficult to frown when someone smiles at us.

In a study into automatic and controlled facial expressions carried out at Uppsala University in Sweden, participants were shown different faces with positive and negative expressions and were asked to try to maintain a neutral expression (not to smile or to frown) while looking at them. The results revealed that when a person saw a smiling face, he was more likely to smile than when he was shown a frowning face. Smiling is naturally contagious. If you have any doubts about this, remember back to when you were a kid and you played the game of looking your friends in the face to see who could do it longest without smiling. It’s a real challenge to our brain. 

It’s difficult to simulate a genuine smile.

Genuine smiles –those that combine smiling with your lips and your eyes– are difficult to fake. Ekman and Freisen carried out an experiment in 1988 in which a group of nurses was divided into two groups. One group was shown a pleasant video and the other an unpleasant one. After seeing the video, both groups were instructed to reply, when asked, that the video they’d seen had been pleasant (i.e. one group was supposed to lie while the other told the truth). When the interviews with the nurses were analyzed, it was found that the group that was lying was less inclined to smile in a genuine way than the group that was telling the truth.

Smiling makes us feel better.

This might seem obvious, but it isn’t really. On many occasions, smiling stems from a feeling of well-being or pleasure; however, even when this feeling isn’t present, the simple act of smiling can make us feel better. Our own experience confirms this, and science actually gave a name to this phenomenon years ago, when Charles Darwin formulated the hypothesis of facial feedback. Now, advances in neuroscience have shown that Darwin, once again, was right. This explains why it’s beneficial to try to get someone who’s been going through a rough patch to smile; even more interestingly, when we are feeling down, if we smile and change our posture, it helps us to alter our emotional state.

Smiling may mean different things.

Apart from the genuine smile, Ekman discovered 17 other types, used when people are flirting, lying or feel afraid. The research with chimpanzees has also revealed that sometimes they smile from pleasure, sometimes when they’re at play, and at others when they’re trying to forge or strengthen a social bond. On other occasions, they may smile to show their power and superiority. Dr. Niedenthal and his team are currently developing a new model which views smiling not just as the expression of inner feelings, but as the visible manifestation of a coming together between two minds.

Both men and women think that women smile more often.

An interesting data point, according to LaFrance, is that embarrassing or socially tense situations cause women to smile more than men; however, the same is not true of happy or sad situations. Smiling is highly correlated with social relationships. Both men and women are capable of producing genuine smiles; however, men state that they smile less than women, and both sexes believe this to be the case.

When other people smile at us, we feel better.

The mere fact that someone smiles at us makes us feel better. A piece of research, carried out with the aid of neuroimaging, has demonstrated that another person smiling at us activates the reward circuits in our brain. This is why it’s so important for people who are going through a hard time to be in contact with others, and for these people to smile at them kindly and genuinely. If, besides this, they have a good sense of humour, they will be able to help even more.

The good news is that we smile even before we are born.

3D ultrasound techniques have shown that while we are still fetuses, we smile as we develop inside our mother’s womb. When we are born, we keep on smiling, especially while we are asleep. Even blind babies smile when they hear a human voice. Smiling is a biological mode of expression which is common to all humans. Babies of only 10 months can make facial expressions with exceptional precision and are able to modify how they smile, offering a polite smile to someone they don’t know very well, while reserving a genuine full smile for their mother. Our smile is broader at the beginning of our lives and gets narrower the older we get. We are all born with a smile on our face. Our job is to work hard to keep it there and, also, to help others to recover theirs.


Smiling plays the role of social glue; what’s more, it helps us to live longer and to change how we feel.


  1. Are you someone who smiles a lot? Find out what those who know you think.
  2. When you are feeling down, remember to smile. Just by doing this, you’ll begin to activate positive emotions in your brain.
  3. If you want to help someone, a genuine smile is a great way to connect with them.


–        Harker, LeeAnne, Keltner and Dacher. 2001. Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

–        E. L. Abel and M. L Kruger. 2010.  Smile Intensity in Photographs Predicts Longevity. Psychological Science.

–       E. Paul. 1980. Ethnology; Facial expression; Pictorial Works; Papua New Guinea. Garland STPM Press. New York.


Be Sociable, Share!