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How To Smile

Is feedback about the quality of our smiles helpful?

Every time you smile at someone,
It is an action of love,
A gift to that person,
A beautiful thing.
- Mother Teresa

The world is an interesting place, and the Internet provides constant reminders of just how interesting it is. Yesterday a friend alerted me to an Internet story - I assume it is true - about a Japanese train company that is using high-tech scanning to make sure its employees smile properly.

Smiling is pleasant - to do and to see - and a smiling employee is accordingly likely to provide a more pleasant experience for customers. We all have had the misfortune of dealing with disgruntled employees whose goal is apparently to make us as miserable as they are, never mind that we are trying to pay for whatever they are providing, whether it be lunch, postage stamps, or a new driver's license. So I applaud the attempt to make the folks we deal with more pleasing.

According to the story, each morning the 500 employees of the Keihin Electric Express Railway Company smile into a camera hooked up to a computer. Analyzed are facial features such as lip curvature and facial wrinkles. Spit back at each employee is an overall rating of his or her smile quality, from 0 to 100. If the smile quality is insufficient, the computer provides feedback - e.g., "lift up your mouth corners." The computer also prints out an ideal smile to which employees can refer throughout the day.

The details of how this is all done were not mentioned in the story, but I did some poking around and found that a Japanese company, Omron, has sold several hundred devices called a Smile-Scan to those in the Japanese service industry. Each has a price tag of $7300. I assume this is the device used by the Keihin Electric Express Company.

The Smile-Scan scans a person's face and creates a three-dimensional model. Critical features of the model are then analyzed and quantified to gauge the intensity of the person's smile.

The Omron device even allows two persons to be scanned at the same time, and there is a "battle mode" in which these two people can determine who has a better smile per the algorithm!

One reaction to the Smile-Scan is that it is helping people be phony, and I have previously decried forced cheerfulness. But maybe branding this strategy phony is too harsh. One of the well-known sayings of Alcoholics Anonymous is "fake it until you can make it" which means to act how you want to be, even if it is awkward and deliberate in the beginning - eventually, you become how you act. Maybe if we learn how to smile by heeding computer-provided feedback, we someday will smile as a matter of course.

That said, whether use of the Smile-Scan actually leads to more and better smiles was not mentioned in the story I read, and the long-term effects for service, sales, and customer satisfaction are likely unknown at present.

As a positive psychologist, I believe that most people want to be happy and also to make others happy. The world is less happy than it might be because many of us do not know how to accomplish these goals. Feedback about the quality of our smiles is a start. I doubt that intensity is the only smile parameter that matters, but regardless, if we want to change any habit - good or bad - we need to assess what we are doing with respect to the habit. Indeed, ongoing feedback is critical.

This entry is not really about smiling, although I hope it made you smile a bit. It is about the importance of concrete advice about how to be more positive to others and the importance of feedback along the way. Whether Smile-Scans will increase the gross amount of happiness in the world is doubtful, but the general premise has promise.