Honest Now, Why Aren’t You Smiling?

Why we rather not spread happiness and what to do about it

Posted Nov 07, 2014

“Smile and the world smiles with you,” because people easily distinguish this positive expression from any negative ones and welcome it as a sign of peace and harmony in a world that can be fierce and dangerous. We disarm people with our smiles; we might even flash a killer smile, melting away hostilities and ending indifference. The smile puts our best face forward. It makes us look more attractive than any other facial expression that we might have up our sleeves, as long as it looks authentic, with proper crowfeet around our eyes--called the Duchenne smile, as described by French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne in 1862.1 We can even make ourselves feel better with an authentically felt smile, as psychologist Russ Buck has argued with his facial feedback hypothesis.2

          So, as this is the case, why are we not smiling left and right, often and generously? Surely, we are all a bit tired these days, subjected to the modern world’s overwhelming sensory input. Smiling, like any motion, takes a bit of energy, energy, we think, we might not have to spare. And maybe we are not happy enough to smile more often. But this is not the whole story. Firstly, smiling is giving, and giving energizes us. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky has recently confirmed the Bible’s old expression “It’s better to give than to receive,” finding in her study that those who perform small acts of kindness for their coworkers are happier than those who receive them.3 We nurture others with our smiles and become nurtured ourselves at the same time.

          Also, I would argue that many other quick motions we constantly display take more energy than a quick and friendly smile, such as women straightening their hair, men striking their beards, and everybody checking their phones. Unless we are too sad or too mad to be in the mood, something else must be going on why we are reluctant to use our zygomaticus major muscles at the corners of our mouth. I think I figured out the main cause.

          As part of a study, I examined the smile of severely depressed people in a video analysis, using a complicated decoding method for non-verbal behavior (Facial Action Coding System by Ekman and Friesen). The depressed people watched several hilarious film clips. Everybody would expect that depressed people do not smile often. But when they do smile, their smiles are hard to see. I looked at the smiles in slow motion and noticed that they were followed by motions that changed or masked the smiles, making it harder for the observer to identify them. I called these motions antagonistic muscle movements, such as lip puckers, lip stretches, lip biting, and frowning, and they all happened for split seconds right after the smile. Some people even left the room, angry at the experimenters for having made them smile. For depressed people, it is probably as annoying to be provoked to smile as it is for us to be tickled when we are mad. It just feels wrong.

          And yet. I learned from this study that we --and not only depressed people-- are often unaware when we withhold ourselves, unwilling to give, preferring the status quo. Moreover, let’s be honest now, smiling at others does not look powerful or cool, maybe even needy and nerdy. Marines do not smile in the commercials; they look proud and stern. Teenagers make “not smiling” a religion as they cannot risk appearing to be uncool. I have run into some celebrities in Malibu, California who look aggressively away or just hostile, warning you with every pore of their body to stay away. While I have seen truly desperate and poor people smile in Kenya, I see detached and cold looking people in rich areas, showing their environment unequivocally how they need nothing and nobody.

          Please do not misunderstand. I am all against fake shopping mall smiles. I even wrote a book on authentic happiness (A Unified Theory of Happiness).4 But I am also for honesty and self-awareness. We need to look inside and admit to ourselves that we can be rather stingy, withholding smiles, unwilling to give and connect with others on the same level. And instead of insisting to be a certain way, tired, sad, mad, or so much better than other fellow human beings, we may also consider opening up to the moment. If we let it, the moment may just change us for the better, making us realize that actually, a simple smile won’t hurt and do a lot of good after all.

NOTE: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you believe in might to others also, please consider sending them its link. Moreover, if you you’d like to read other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2014 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

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1)       Duchenne, G.B.A. (1862). Mechanisme de la physionomie humaine; ou analyse electrophysiologique de l’expression des passions. Paris: Bailliere.

2)  http://www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/nonverbal_behavior_and_the_theory_of_emotion-_the_facial_feedback_hypothesis..pdf

3)       Chancellor, J., Bao, K. J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). Ripples of generosity in the workplace: The benefits of giving, getting, and glimpsing. Manuscript under review.

4)       www.AUnifiedTheoryofHappiness.com – an East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life.