The big grin hasn’t always been America’s default facial expression. But cameras, casting directors, and cosmetic dentistry have changed how we want to see ourselves. The irony is that all the smiling going on may be wrecking our emotional health.
By May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
On a recent visit to the Henry Ford Museum, a friend volunteered to take a picture of me standing next to the very limo in which President Kennedy was assassinated. For a second, I wasn’t sure how I should look. Sad? Angry? Reverent?
Dear Reader, I smiled.
It’s almost impossible not to smile when a camera points in your direction (unless you’re Linsday Lohan and there’s someone else’s necklace in your purse). In fact, when President Obama visited Newtown right after the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school, he met with mourning parents and grieved with them about their children. But then, according to The New York Times, “Moments later, he was smiling, on cue. One of his photographers was on hand, as always, and despite everything, the bereaved wanted pictures with the president.”
The president wasn’t being shallow or disrespectful. He was simply being an American in the 21st century. In this country, in this era, either you smile or there’s something wrong with you.
Ironically, the imperative to smile may be making a whole lot of us sad.
The Grim Old Days
Smiling was not always America’s default facial expression. Find some faded family photos from before 1900, or even the subsequent few decades, and chances are your relatives look as cheery as churchgoers at an all-day temperance sermon. Their expressions fall somewhere between mean and miserable.
In great part, that’s because they were miserable. The earliest photos required long exposures; anyone sitting for a portrait had to stay stock still for several minutes or the picture would be blurry. It was a lot easier to stare stiffly ahead than to try to maintain a countenance of spontaneous delight for two or three minutes.
Moreover, points out Jared Sais, a New York–based expert on nonverbal communication, portraits were outrageously expensive, purely the province of professionals, and something even the reasonably well-off could afford only a few times in their life. Images had to serve the test of time. That made the occasion solemn.
In the history of portraiture—all the paintings of people done before the advent of photography—it’s hard to think of anyone smiling except Mona Lisa, and you could hardly call hers a toothy grin. In fact, the reason she’s so famous for her smile may be not because it’s so mysterious but because she has one at all.
Besides, smiles do not connote power. Kings and queens looked serious in their portraits, as did anyone else who wanted to look prosperous, which was basically everyone. They seemed to know all along what psychologists have only recently discovered: Dominance disdains a smile. Men with high levels of testosterone smile less than men with lower levels of the hormone, and they are judged to be less nice.
So how did something as childish—and even ridiculous—as the smile become the only acceptable expression to show to the public today? And what is all that smiling doing to our psyches?
The Smile Evolution
Smiles have been around as long as humans have. They are innate. Not only do babies smile, people born blind do it, and studies show they can sense when others around them are smiling. Stranger still, says David Matsumoto, founder and director of San Francisco State University’s Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory, the congenitally blind even fake smile. Yes, there seems to be an inborn urge for us to pretend to be happy when we’re not.
That fake smile is called, well, a fake smile, or a social one. A real one is known as a Duchenne smile, in honor of the French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who, in the mid-1800s, determined that when people are smiling politely, only their zygomatic major muscles move, pulling the corners of their lips upward. But when a person is smiling for real, the orbicularis oculi muscles around the eyes move, too, creating pleasantly crinkly crow’s feet. A real smile is a one-two punch: mouth and eyes. Also, the eyebrows dip down slightly at the ends.
Darwin studied facial expressions and could deduce an evolutionary reason for most of them: The wrinkled nose of disgust was a way to block the nasal passage from breathing in something noxious. Fear widened the iris, allowing more light into the eye so a dangerous situation could be seen better. But Darwin couldn’t figure out the reason for the smile, says psychologist Paul Ekman, one of the world’s foremost researchers of facial emotion. He has picked up where Darwin left off.
One of Ekman’s earliest experiments was to determine whether facial expressions, including smiling, are universally understood. He and colleague Wallace Friesen sought out the Fore people of New Guinea, a totally isolated, preliterate culture, and told them stories rich with an array of emotions—fear, surprise, and more. Then they asked the Fore to match pictures of faces expressing various emotions to the stories. The tribespeople pointed to the same ones that a control group of more westernized, moviegoing New Guineans did. Making and interpreting a standard set of facial expressions is part of the human package, Ekman concluded.
Ekman later turned his attention to microexpressions, the involuntary grimaces or forehead furrowings that cross a face for a fraction of a second and reflect real, unedited emotions. He has taught everyone from psychotherapists to FBI agents how to read the fleeting signs of true feelings.
Along the way Ekman concluded that most of us are not particularly good at distinguishing between fake and Duchenne smiles. Perhaps, he suggests, there’s a Darwinian reason for the deficit: “Over the course of our history, it must not have been very useful for us to know the difference.” Maybe it’s better not to know if someone really hates our guts—or at least our pineapple-quinoa salad. Better to believe the faker and all get along.
That holds true even in the animal world, where fake, or social, smiles exist among nonhuman primates, such as chimps, says psychologist Matsumoto.
“Typically, they’re in a struggle for hierarchy, and the submissive one smiles. That’s the sign of appeasement.” It’s a smile you yourself probably pasted on when your boss asked how you liked his PowerPoint on document management. It’s the same smile you see at the Olympics—on the face of the silver medal winner. (Just ask McKayla Maroney.)
When You’re Smiling
Smiling works wonders not only in social situations but on your own psyche—even if you’re smiling for no good reason at all. This is something social psychologist James Laird has studied for much of his life (he just retired from Clark University), but it began for him in a traffic jam on his way home from work about 40 years ago.
Laird was working in a mental hospital, and one evening, on his way home, he was thinking about a patient who had “a weird smile.” As he drove, Laird tried to contort his face into a similar smile, figuring it might give him some insight into the man. When he couldn’t quite get it right, he started wondering, “Well, how do I smile?” Practicing his grin, he noticed something very strange: He’d started feeling happy for no apparent reason.
Could it be that the smile was making him happy?
“After that I went around to all my friends, saying, ‘Smile! How does that make you feel?’” recalls Laird. Thrilled at the prospect of proving early psychologist William James’s theory that the mind builds on the body’s physiologic state, rather than vice versa (James would posit we feel a chill up our spine and then realize we’re scared), Laird put smiling to the test.
Telling subjects that he was going to record muscle movements, he proceeded to paste nonworking electrodes on their faces. He directed them to make their mouths into the shape of either a smile or a frown. Then, almost incidentally, he would ask, “By the way, how do you feel?”
It turned out that there was a decent correlation between making a face and feeling the emotion it normally signaled. “This worked better with some people than others,” Laird admits. “If you get a whole room to adopt smiles, about half of them will feel happy.” But what fascinated him was the fact that none of them seemed to realize that their body was influencing their mood, and not the other way around.
Does it make sense to plaster on a smile, just to try to cheer yourself up? It certainly couldn’t hurt. And there’s a lot of evidence that smiling for whatever reason, or no reason at all, contributes to a host of great feedback.
“Don’t underestimate smiles,” says psychologist Dan Hill, president of the emotional-insights consultancy Sensory Logic. “When you smile, you pull more oxygen into your lungs. It cools you. It makes you relaxed and open to possibilities.” Even when you’re sad and your smile looks Charlie Brown-ish, “you’re showing that you are trying to make it through. A lot of our [facial] signaling reflects our desire to feel good about ourselves and attract allies.” A smile can help do that.
A smile is like a silent conversation, says Nancy B. Irwin, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “Indeed, a smile from a stranger can change a person’s entire mood.” Think about an encouraging smile you got on your way into work, or that sexy smile from someone on the subway. We register those smiles, right down to our cells.
Better still, “If you put a smile out and you get one back, you feel connected,” says Ramani Durvasula, a professor of psychology at California State University at Los Angeles. Think about traveling in a land where you don’t know the language. A smile actually does the talking for you.
Once it’s reciprocated, who cares whether you can’t speak a lick of Latvian? You and the locals are communicating. The smile is more than a universal language, it works like a magic wand, making barriers disappear.
It even lowers barriers to learning. “Disorders like depression or anxiety are associated with disruptions in attention and concentration,” Durvasula says. “As a result, you’re not learning as well.” Smile and you get yet another thing to be happy about: It’s easier for you to learn and maybe even get better grades.
Turn That Frown Upside Down
The 20th century wrought several revolutions in smiling. Until then, smiles were sweet expressions involving only lips and eyes; somewhere around midcentury, they were on their way to becoming full-bore, open-mouth, teeth-exposing events. They also became associated with happiness and pleasure. Yet for most of human history, they had been seen as a sign of insanity: Only fools and children smiled.
In the 1700s, the reigning emotion in Europe was melancholy, says Christina Kotchemidova, professor of communications at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. Pensiveness and introspection were part of everyday life. Many of the arts aimed to provoke sadness more than laughter. When melancholy was in vogue, she says, “tears implied a noble soul.”
But a different mood took hold in America. If Europeans were generally blue because they felt they had little say over their circumstances (thanks to a class system that stunted mobility), Americans, living in an atmosphere of greater opportunity for all, seemed more optimistic, cheerier. Uniquely, the pursuit of happiness was written into the U.S. Constitution; it’s not in any European one. By 1908, the Boy Scouts of America wrote an upbeat attitude into their creed, too. “A scout smiles and whistles under all circumstances,” says the Scout law.
If cheer has since turned into “cheese,” thank the rise of the image-based culture, beginning with the advent of movies. It has made smiles ubiquitous—inescapable, actually.
The first silent movie stars of the 1910s didn’t smile much. But once talkies, and especially musicals, took over the screen, smiles broke out all over. Even Rin Tin Tin smiled with a full set of fangs (and his tongue hanging down between them). As stars flashed their pearly whites, audiences went home, brushed their teeth, and polished their grins.
The emerging smile culture got a big boost from the introduction of toothpaste, which became popular around World War I. By 1929, the American Board of Orthodontics was setting new standards for toothy perfection. Today, cosmetic dentistry is almost universally promoted, not as a painful, expensive undertaking but as a “smile makeover.” Even neighborhood dentists tout themselves as “smile designers” practicing in “smile centers.”
The more people have signed up for whiter, straighter, more perfectly proportioned teeth, the more inclined they have become to flash them. And the more they make big white smiles the norm.
Advertising, too, picked up steam and discovered the power of the visual image. Until about the 1920s, Kotchemidova says, most ads were wordy and negative: If you don’t use Listerine, you will end up a spinster. But with a post–World War I explosion of billboards and magazines, advertisers turned to display: Why talk about a person miserable without the product when you could show a person insanely happy thanks to the product?
Ads began showing people seemingly delighted to be doing the most mundane things—ironing clothes, washing dishes, mowing the lawn. If mopping the floor didn’t fill you with joy, well, maybe you were using the wrong wax. Unless it meant something worse: Maybe you were the off-brand.
Wipe That Smile off Your Facebook
We are now swimming in a sea of smiles, and that fact alone has an array of effects. If we see someone smiling in an ad, it may make us want to buy the product. See someone smiling as they walk by and we might well smile back—an instant upper. But see everyone else smiling when you feel like Eeyore? That’s when smiles can turn into little poison darts.
“It can be very isolating when your emotional state is not only at odds with the world of smiles but also with a culture that puts an almost pornographic premium on being happy,” Durvasula says. When happiness appears to be the natural state of affairs, “people think, ‘How come I’m not smiling all the time?’”
The positivity imperative now coursing through American culture can be downright oppressive. As Kotchemidova explains: Every civilization subtly but sternly instructs its citizens on how to act. In ours, filled with self-help books, sitcoms, ads, advice columns, and workplaces that demand smiling as part of the job description, cheer has become the norm. Even our punctuation smiles. Anything less than cheer becomes not the norm—in other words, abnormal.
“That makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than anywhere else,” Kotchemi-dova observes. What’s more, she notes, the open-mouth grin seems to be borrowed from laughter, an involuntary neurophysiological event usually involving sound. It’s a very different act—with bared teeth carrying overtones of aggression—from the display of contentment in a smile.
Pixel smiles crowd our computers, spreading cheer to some and despair to others. A recent study by German researchers found that fully one-third of their 584-person sample felt more dissatisfied with their lives after visiting Facebook. “We were surprised by how many people have a negative experience with Facebook,” Hanna Krasnova explains. The finding was especially true of passive users, those who browse but don’t post much.
With a billion users, Facebook “naturally provides a [breeding] ground for envy,” the researchers declare. Visitors compare themselves to their peers and often feel they come up short. Such envy can lead some users to exaggerate their own happiness when they post online, which, in turn, ups the ante even more, setting off an “envy spiral.”
Social media quickly become collections of peak experiences. Boy, is everyone else doing great! But the posts that induce the very worst online emotions are the vacation pictures—those smiling faces at the beach or sidewalk cafe that seem to stab a lot of onlookers straight through the heart.
New York family therapist Janet Zinn treats those envious onlookers. But she also treats the very folks who post the enviable pictures, and they, too, are oppressed by their own images. “On Facebook they’ll be in these beautiful pictures, smiling while on vacation,” Zinn says. “And when they come in, they’re barely communicating, they’re so angry and upset with one another.”
The sources of their tension are perfectly normal. But, Zinn notes, “they’re not supposed to reveal to the world that they’re unhappy or even that it’s not all happiness.”
Knowing the selection bias built into social media, it would behoove us to remind ourselves that no one’s life is as perfect as it looks from the outside. Especially when all you’re exposed to are the self-selected highlights.
The trick is to try to see a Facebook photo—heck, any photo—for what it really is: a presentation of one moment out of a million, consciously chosen to represent the person at his or her very best, exuding an emotion that was quite possibly faked at the time.
A smile can be real or fake. It can communicate or obfuscate, uplift the soul or send it through the shredder. But the one thing a smile can never be is permanent.
Except in pictures.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids. Her show World’s Worst Mom airs on Discovery/TLC.
See PT's slideshow: Great Moments in Grinning for more on the smile.
From "Prunes" to "Cheese"
Whether we're engaging with real people or their images, we normally traverse the social world by comparing ourselves with others. The unprecedented number of photos accessible today leads us especially to draw negative conclusions about ourselves. What onlookers most envy is the happiness of others—all those smiling faces.
The turn of the twentieth century was a watershed event for the smile. In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie, the first inexpensive, portable camera. To get the masses to buy its cameras and film, Kodak had to make them think of photography as fun. Until the amateur-friendly Brownie came along, photography was a serious undertaking practiced by professionals.
In ads and how-to articles, Kodak encouraged the world to take photographs at home and to record vacations, birthdays, and other happy occasions. Slogans decreed, "Springtime is Kodak time" and "Vacation days are Kodak days." Taking snapshots was on its way to becoming an integral part of celebrating.
Once it became de rigueur to show happy people at happy times, smiles became obligatory too—how else to demonstrate that a good time was had by all? Before Kodak pushed the public to "Save your happy moments with a Kodak," smiling was scarcely associated with picture-taking. In fact, the small, pursed mouths in fashion at the turn of the century encouraged photographers to instruct their subjects to say "prunes," not "cheese!"