In an earlier post, I reviewed some research that showed how a picture of someone smiling at a young age, such as in high school yearbooks, could predict lower divorce rates later in life and even longer lifespan. The ability of one snapshot photo to convey so much information about a person, effects that last for many decades later, is quite remarkable.

Social media present a great opportunity to study these effects over shorter periods of time. People publish many pictures of themselves on sites such as Facebook that are easy to access. Moreover, previous studies used pictures that were formal, where people have to pose in front of a professional photographer. These pictures tend to evoke forced smiles that sometimes look awkward. On Facebook, people add their own pictures in more natural settings.

A new study surveyed 92 college students during their first semester at school, who had a Facebook profile picture that could be coded for smile intensity, and followed them for 3.5 years. As you can imagine, some students dropped out of school, and in the end, 48 students (20 males, 28 females) completed the full study. Students completed a questionnaire at the end of the first semester that measures how satisfied they are with their lives and how happy they are with their social relationships (friends, family and in general). At the end of their final semester in college, researchers retrieved their most recent profile picture and the students again completed the life satisfaction scale.

The results showed that, as in previous studies, women tended to smile more than men and with more intensity. For both sexes, smile intensity was correlated with the self-reported life satisfaction (at both points), and with social networks satisfaction. More importantly, even after controlling for how satisfied the students were after their first semester, smile intensity was a good predictor of changes in life satisfaction after 3.5 years.

This study is yet another indication that smiling can have a profound effect on your life, and the more intense the smiling is, the better. It is not entirely clear from the study if smiling itself causes all these positive effects. It may be that smiling is just a manifestation of your internal emotional state, and thus it is not the smiling itself that makes you happy with your life and contributes to your well being. However, studies have shown that if people are forced to smile, they do feel happier and it does change their emotional state.

Smiling also has a strong positive effect on others. Even a brief look at your picture can reveal so much about you. Other people may judge you as friendlier, agreeable and may want to hang around you more if you smile. In an era where social media is so important to establishing relationships with others, your profile picture on Facebook might be the best way to attract others.

About the Author

Gil Greengross Ph.D.

Gil Greengross, Ph.D., is a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Mexico.

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