In 2001, psychologists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner reported that women's personal well-being and marital satisfaction in middle age could be partially predicted by how happy they looked in their yearbook photos at age 21. Divorce, though, could not be predicted. But a new paper to be published in Motivation & Emotion offers an update, and applies to men as well as women.

In one study, Matt Hertenstein and collaborators at DePauw University analyzed hundreds of graduates (average age about 46) and looked at not just one yearbook photo per subject, as Harker and Keltner did, but all the yearbook photos of the graduates they could get their hands on. The researchers measured the intensity of the smiles in the photos and asked the subjects if they had ever been divorced. According to Hertenstein, "the top 10% of smilers had a divorce rate of about 1 in 20, whereas if you were a bottom 10% smiler, your chance of divorce was 5 times more likely!" (The rates are below the national failure rate of marriages--about 1 in 2--because not all subjects married in the first place.)

In a second study, they analyzed 55 local townfolk aged 59 to 91 and looked at a collection of photos of them from ages 5 through 22 (average age 10). Again, smile intensity predicted divorce later in life (at least among women; there weren't enough people in the sample to make the pattern statistically significant for men.) Yes, you can look at photos of 10-year-olds and reasonably wager on whether they have alimony in their futures.

The proposed mechanisms are not too complicated. Smilers tend to be happier, more social, and more emotionally stable, all traits that lead to successful relationships. Alternatively (and compatibly), smiling makes others smile, leading to mutually contagious and beneficial social arrangements. 

Now, I happen to have the digital file for my 1996 high school yearbook page (I made it on my Mac, complete with fractals) and I've cropped the self-portrait from the center. Take a look.

Divorce attorneys, start your engines.

Hertenstein, M., Hansel, C., Butts, A., & Hile, S. (2009). Smile intensity in photographs predicts divorce later in life Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-009-9124-6

About the Author

Matthew Hutson

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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