The Science of Smiles

The “smiley face”…you know, that big yellow smiling ideogram that has become a worldwide pop culture reference used in daily (more likely every minute) communication to express how we feel? It actually has lots of meaning behind it, and when delivered in person as a “true smile” it has even greater benefits (than in a text, snap, post or email).


Ron Gutman did a great 7 minute TED Talk where he shares nuggets from many different studies on the science of smiling. It’s a quick watch but if you’re really pressed for time the short of it is, we should all smile more and here’s why:

  • A famous yearbook study by Matthew Hertenstein reveals a correlation between yearbook smiles and better marital relationships as well as overall life happiness.
  • Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger's Baseball Card Study found those players who smiled in their pictures turned out to live on average seven years longer than those who didn’t.
  • The good news is we’re born smiling. Babies smile in the womb and once born continue to smile, even when sleeping.
  • Regardless of race and culture, smiling is a biological expression of all humans used to express joy.
  • More than 1/3 of humans smile more than 20 times a day.
  • Children smile as many as 400 times per day, which is why being around children makes us smile more.
  • Darwin’s Facial Feedback Response Theory, the idea that smiling can make you happier and frowning can make you sadder or angrier — that changing your facial expression can intensify or even transform your mood.
  • One smile can generate the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2K bars of chocolate or receiving up to £16,000 / $20,000.
  • Smiling can reduce stress enhancing hormones and increase mood enhancing endorphins.
  • Smiling makes you appear more likable and more competent.



Based on all of this, it would seem pretty obvious that smiling is good for you. But beyond just you, smiling is also good for those around you.
We have something called mirror neurons which are brain cells that code the actions of other people and also our own actions, essential brain cells for reading social interactions. Mirror neurons act as an inner imitation to the actions of others that in turn lead us to simulate the emotion. So, when you smile at someone their mirror neurons trigger them to smile. That smile then triggers the positive feeling we associate with a smile, and all the benefits that go along with it. Basically you can think of the whole chain of events as a neurological cascade of good vibes…for everyone involved in the exchange.
So now to the question of in today’s world, how do we continue to spread happiness? It’s simple, keep smiling, even behind the mask.
Psychologist Paul Ekman, who studies facial expressions, described a “true enjoyment smile” as showing up in the crow’s feet or laugh lines area of the face, with the eyes narrowing and crinkling. A genuine smile — also known as the Duchenne smile — engages the orbicularis oculi muscle around the eye; a fake smile does not. As further proof of being able to see a smile even when partially covered, Janine Driver, a world-renowned body language expert, pointed out that when a baby smiles you still know it even when his or her mouth is covered by a pacifier. Net net, it’s all in the eyes.
So whether digitally or in person, smile more.