The untapped power behind a smile and when to harness its influence

Nilgin Yusuf
·4-min read
Photo credit: Julia wears Valentino dress and Tiffany & Co jewellery, photographed by Alexi Lubormirski
Photo credit: Julia wears Valentino dress and Tiffany & Co jewellery, photographed by Alexi Lubormirski

A day of cartoon capers, belly gags and all sorts of tomfoolery, April 1st is when we’re expected to have a laugh and some good-hearted banter. We might share or receive jokes, spot a few audacious headlines in the media or rumble some amusing pranks from well-known brands. Like that time Burger King introduced a Left-Handed Whopper and Google announced a Telepathic search tool. With a long history spanning centuries and cultures, there are numerous theories about when April Fools started. From the Roman season of Hilaria to the Medieval Feast of Fools, the beginning of the Gregorian Calendar to the arrival of the Vernal Equinox, this day of mischief has an impressive lineage.

Although, we’ve had little to laugh about this year, it’s good to reflect on the value of smiling which can have both personal and social benefits. Smiling and laughter help fight stress, build positive emotions, strengthen our immune system, diminish pain and make us more attractive to others. Smiling is both a universal and biological human expression. Babies – including those born blind - smile from five weeks - and all being well, we beam throughout childhood. It’s been estimated children smile up to 400 times a day, yet the vicissitudes of life take their toll. By the time we reach adulthood, we’re down to an average 20 daily smiles. Even the most gleeful grown-ups are only hitting between 40 or 50 a day. The parameters and conventions of smiling are also culturally defined. Six years ago, in Moscow, I was struck by how few smiles were exchanged and I’ve heard similar accounts from Westerners visitors to China.

In Smile, The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, author Ron Gutman explores the many benefits reaped by smilers including deeper social relationships, longer lives and better mental and physical health. But what lies behind this apparent simple expression of happiness is more complex and nuanced. According to researchers, there’s a taxonomy of 19 different smiles yet only six represent happiness. Body language expert, Judy James identified 14 smiles including, the “mirthless; social rictus; mouth shrug; uber flirt, lower jaw jut and know all.”

Paul Ekman, one of world’s leading researchers into emotions and facial expressions believes many smiles, rather than a ubiquitous manifestation of joy, are about transmitting specific messages. The compliance smile and listener response smile perform very particular functions. Ekman also noted the ‘felt smile, fearful smile, dampened smile and flirtatious smile’. From embarrassment, discomfort, horror, contempt, anger, incredulity, deceit and defeat, almost every emotion can be filtered through that widening and upturning of the lips, we call a smile.

Photo credit: Hanna Lassen
Photo credit: Hanna Lassen

I’ve always had an inherent mistrust of excessive smilers. Whether I’ve imbibed this from films and TV (think The Joker and Hannibal Lecter) or real life (managers and politicians) unless you’re the Dalai Lama, there’s no need for chronic smiling. In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “one may smile and smile, and be a villain” and in Telling Lies, Herman Melville observed it’s “the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities”. In my experience, perpetual smilers are on the edge of an emotional meltdown or selling you something. The old Russian proverb, ‘Smiling with no reason is a sign of stupidity’ may be simplistic, but my instinct informs me that profligate or inappropriate smilers are usually covering something up.

The global pandemic with its need for mask-wearing in public, has made expressing smiles challenging, almost impossible. By covering our laughing gear in public, we are compelled to consciously mobilise our eyes, which according to notable smile watchers, is the mark of a genuine smile. This bright-eyed smile, known as the Duchenne smile is named after the French neurologist, Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne who discovered that when the Zygomatic Major muscles of the mouth connect to the Orbicularis Oculi of the eyes, we get the full on, maximum wattage, facial smile with twinkly eyes, the one that emanates from the heart, not the logical compartments of the head, although this too is possible to fake.

But is there anything more amazing than receiving a genuine smile from someone you like, respect or love? Or laughing heartily with a really good friend? When my son was a baby, I would do anything, no matter how clownish or absurd, to hear him laugh. The sound would set off fireworks off in my heart. When getting to know someone, the ability to laugh at similar things is like a hinge into a deeper place where genuine friendship might be forged. And if the laughter happens with a prospective love interest, well, it’s as good as foreplay, without taking your clothes off. I can’t imagine being friends with anyone who didn’t share the same sense of humour.

So, make sure to extend your laughter beyond April 1st. A little smile can go a long way.

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