Smile Mechanics

There is a field of smile studies. Yes, there really is. This got my attention.

Most of us believe that smiling is a good thing, right?  Well, here’s what happens in a genuine smile. Think of it as a one-two punch. Or shall I say one-two muscle tug. A pleasing sensation arouses the brain. The brain, in turn, rouses two muscles into action: The zygomatic major, which resides in the cheek, tugs the lips upward, and the orbicularis oculi, which encircles the eye socket, squeezes the outside corners into the shape of a crow’s foot.

The entire event is short. It typically lasts from two-thirds of a second to four seconds. The beauty of a genuine smile? Those who witness it often respond by smiling back.

Researchers call it the Duchenne smile, in deference to French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne, who first studied the emotional expression of facial muscles. Other muscles can simulate a smile, but only the one-two muscle tug of the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi produces a genuine expression of positive emotion (Eric Jaffe, The Psychological Study of Smiling).

Other smiles contain all sorts of ambiguities. In his book Telling Lies, smile researcher Paul Ekman describes 17 other types of smiles. We smile when we are frightened, when we flirt, when we are horrified. Many folks smile when they are lying. Shakespeare’s Hamlet poignantly marvels at how “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Smiling works in different ways, in different contexts. But most importantly, smiling works. It plain works. Studies surprisingly show that folks who find ways of smiling during times of great distress weather the experience a lot better than folks who don’t.

Smile, though your heart is breaking.

Yes, smiling works. It works when we’re not happy. It works when we’re irritated. It works when we disagree. It works when we’re confused. And smiling makes us more appealing to anyone we engage with.

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly champion the clear and unambiguous expression of a non-pleasant emotion, situation permitting. Untainted by the need to soften it with a smile.

But in our obsession with authentic behavior and authentic self-expression, it is easy to dismiss the power of a smile.

Smiling works. It works even when it is not a Duchenne smile. It works because of its impact on the other person. It works.

This week, depending on where you stand regarding the US election outcomes, you may not feel like smiling. Understood. Experiment with smiling anyway. Your smiles may not be Duchenne smiles. But simply decide.

Smile. See what happens.