Why Do Some People Prefer Not to Smile?

Facial expressions have the power to influence our emotions.

Posted May 21, 2019

A smile typically signifies a positive emotional state—happiness, satisfaction, kindness, and warmth. The benefits of a positive mood, according to researchers, include improved heart health, increased longevity, and stronger immune systems. These benefits are definitely worthwhile goals—no one would argue that. However, we might wonder if consciously controlling a facial expression can really change our lives. The majority of evidence suggests that smiling truly does enhance our moods and our lives.

Why Do Americans Value "Sharing a Smile"?

It is interesting to note that Americans seem to enjoy sharing a smile more than citizens in other countries. Inc. magazine posted an article that explores the "smile quotient" of the U.S. and noted that when we live in countries that are relatively stable (economies, governments, etc.), we feel more easy and relaxed about life and more readily able to smile. We also are a nation of immigrants, which increases the likelihood of offering a stranger a smile. When people meet with a language barrier, they often use a smile to indicate positive intentions from others, and so we've been socialized to smile at new people we meet. We also live in a culture in which we encourage the constitutionally based "pursuit of happiness" as well as our pop-psychology based entreaties to seek joy, live our best lives, and express gratitude for the positive events we experience. Not only that, but many of us were raised on advertising slogans, such as "Share a Coke and a smile," that encourage social engagement and smile-worthy moments connected to consumer products.

What Keeps Us From Smiling?

Personal Characteristics

Some people just aren't prone to smiling—they may be shy and unsure of themselves, self-conscious about their appearance, or simply don't feel the need to offer smiles to all and sundry. They may have been raised in families or cultures where smiling wasn't as frequent as it is in others.

Smartphones

Does your cellphone make you less friendly and less likely to interact with others in social situations? Absolutely! When you have your cellphone in your hands, you are a lot less likely to offer anyone a smile (Kushlev et al., 2019) or to make eye contact. In a research study in which individuals were asked to sit in a waiting room for a few minutes, half of the participants were allowed to hold onto their smartphones, and the other half were not. The technology-equipped folks were much less likely to smile at others in the waiting room and probably didn’t even register much about the number of people in the room with them or any details about them. In another study, researchers found that having your smartphone with you when you’re sharing a meal with friends or family members can affect your level of engagement and the pleasure you experience at the table (Dwyer, Kushlev, & Dunn, 2018). However you slice it, smartphones detract from the present moment and can be an obstacle to building relationships that might have benefitted you in some way.

Oral Health

Smiling is a lot easier for those individuals who possess healthy teeth and gums. We probably have experience—either firsthand or witnessing the behavior—of holding a hand over the mouth when talking to others if self-conscious about the appearance of our smiles. Even kids as young as 4 years old may exhibit unconscious sensitivity about the health and appearance of their smiles and be reticent to smile as frequently as kids who have higher levels of oral health (Patel, Tootla, & Inglehart, 2007). What’s the downside to fewer toothy grins when watching television or interacting with others? When we are hesitant to smile, we are also often seen as less friendly, less approachable, and less inviting to have around. If we don’t respond to a smile with one of our own or use a smile to open up a social connection, we will end up having a lot less to smile about in the long run, as smiles serve as the bridge to social connections.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse can wreck lives in many ways, one of which includes its significant detrimental effects on oral health. “Meth mouth,” a term coined to describe the resulting damage to teeth that addiction to this substance can cause, is one example of the ways in which oral health is negatively affected by addiction. When an addiction is kicked, the damage will remain unless corrected and can be a permanent marker of past struggles and poor choices. Findings from a recent study suggest that treating the oral health problems, however, can actually increase the success rate of substance abuse recovery programs (Hanson, McMillian, Mower, Bruett, … & Trump, 2019). When individuals seeking addiction treatment also received treatment for their smiles—everything from fillings to root canals to dentures—they were significantly more likely to complete their substance abuse treatment and stay clean longer. Having a healthy smile makes a difference in addiction treatment and recovery motivation.

Faking a Smile Too Long Is Bad for the Soul

While we often advise people suffering with depression to “fake it until you make it,” spending long days on the job performing the “fake smile” or suppressing your true feelings isn’t really much better than foregoing a smile. People who spend their days trying to “jolly people” into making decisions that affect income were found to be more likely to engage in less healthy behaviors outside of work (Grandey et al., 2019).

Benefits of Smiling?

Fine-tuning Your Mood

In a round-up meta-analysis of over 130 research studies related to smiling, it was found that smiling or scowling or frowning really do have some measurable effect on our emotional state (really did make for a more positive experiencing of life (Coles, Larsen, & Lench, 2019). Forcing a smile won’t change your life, but allowing yourself to smile with pleasure about something positive in your day, or in response to another person’s smile, or about something amusing you notice, can actually positively influence your mood. Happiness and life satisfaction are predictors of a slew of positive health markers regarding such physiological factors as cardiovascular and immune system functioning.

From Inspiring Confidence to Looking Cool to Others

When we put on a genuine smile, we actually feel better about life’s circumstances and ourselves. When you smile at another person, and they return the smile, or vice versa, our brain floods with endorphins which makes us feel happy. It’s like a quick shot of joy that lifts our heart and our spirit. It also makes us feel more confident in a situation. At job interviews, when you smile at candidates, they are going to perform better than when you take the “blank screen” approach.

In one study, researchers explored perceptions of adults to people displaying smiles or neutral expressions in photographs (Warren, Pezzuti, & Koley, 2018). It turns out that being perceived as being “cool” is more likely if you’re wearing a smile than if you’re trying to look cool via a “too cool to care,” blank facial expression. Participants in this study even assessed James Dean, the king of cool, as being “more cool” in the photos in which he was caught smiling. Wearing a smile can signal to others that you’re “in on the joke,” which makes you appear as an insider to those on the outside who want to get in.

Smiling at others, when the smile is authentic, makes you more likely to be perceived as trustworthy. People who smile more often with their partners also enjoy more peaceable and pleasant marriages and relationships. One study indicated that those of us who experience positive emotions in photos as young adults are also more likely to enjoy happiness and satisfying relationships decades later (Harker & Keltner, 2001).

If You Just Can’t Crack a Smile

Inauthentic smiles aren’t going to provide the salubrious benefits to your health that authentic smiles will do, but learning to look for the humor in an otherwise unpleasant situation can help you find more reasons to smile. Learning to let go of frustration and anger can also help you spend more time soaking in all the pleasures that surround you.

If you find you’re trying too hard to fake a smile or put on a mask for others, it may be time to seek professional assistance. Feeling unusually unhappy, losing interest in the things you once found engaging, and having a hard time moving through life are all signs of depression. When a smile becomes too much to expect from yourself, reach out to others, whether it is friends, family, or a professional helper.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you’re looking for trouble, you’re sure to find it.” Don’t let yourself focus on what’s wrong in this world; look for reasons to be grateful and satisfied with what is right. Reasons to smile are just as easy to find as reasons to complain. Give your body and your mind a break by focusing on the former and letting the latter go by the wayside.

References

Coles, N. A., Larsen, J. T., & Lench, H. C. (2019). A meta-analysis of the facial feedback literature: Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable. Psychological Bulletin, 2019; DOI: 10.1037/bul0000194

Grandey, A. A., Frone, M. R., Melloy, R. C., & Sayre, G. M. (2019). When are fakers also drinkers? A self-control view of emotional labor and alcohol consumption among U.S. service workers.. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2019; DOI: 10.1037/ocp0000147

Hanson, G. R., McMillan, S., Mower, K., Bruett, C. T., Duarte, L., Koduri, S., Pinzon, L., Warthen, M., Smith, K., Meeks, H., & Trump, B. (2019). Comprehensive oral care improves treatment outcomes in male and female patients with high-severity and chronic substance use disorders. The Journal of the American Dental Association, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.adaj.2019.02.016

Harker, L., & Keltner, D. (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, 80(1), 112-124. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.80.1.112

Patel, R. R., Tootla, R., & Inglehart, M. R. (2007). Does oral health affect self-perceptions, parental ratings and video-based assessments of children’s smiles? Community Dentistry & Oral Epidemiology, 35(1), 44–52. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0528.2007.00327.x

Warren, C., Pezzuti, T., & Koley, S. (2018). Is Being Emotionally Inexpressive Cool? Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2018; DOI: 10.1002/jcpy.1039

Dwyer, R. J., Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2018). Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 233-239.

Inc. magazine: Do you Smile Too Much? Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/do-you-smile-too-much-the-answer-is-probably-yes-heres-why-thats-bad.html

Kushlev, K., Hunter, J. F., Proulx, J., Pressman, S. D., & Dunn, E. (2019). Smartphones reduce smiles between strangers. Computers in Human Behavior, 91, 12-16.