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December 4, 2013

What Makes Us Smile? ~ Tim Adams

A smile is one of the simplest, yet most genuine gifts you can give to someone.

A true smile will show someone that you are happy and you want them to share in your happiness. Your smile tells a lot about you. It can say if you are feeling joyful, a little sad, or even disinterested, depending on your expression. There are many reasons and ways for us to smile at—or with other people.

Genuine Smiles

Human expressions help us to gauge emotion. When we are sad, you frown; when you are angry, you crease your forehead and when you are happy, you smile. But is there more to smiling than just feeling happy? Research suggests that it takes more than just a good joke to get an honest grin out of somebody.

You might have watched someone smile and noticed it felt a little off or not genuine. We label these strange smiles insincere because they do not reach the smiler’s eyes.

One part of the brain activates eye-reaching smiles—also known as Duchenne smiles, and when we don’t feel genuinely happy, it is extremely difficult to create one.

A different area of the brain activates the conscious smile, which is not actually associated with real joy or happiness. It can be extremely difficult to create either one of these smiles if the emotions you feel do not reflect them.

Understanding Emotions

We often use body language to understand and convey emotions to other people. An integral part of our body language is our facial expressions—primarily our smiles; they are a key ways for us to tell someone what we’re feeling in an instant.

Ever wonder why when you’re walking down the street and someone smiles at you, you involuntarily smile back? Researchers believe it’s because you are trying to mimic the other person’s face so you can have a better read on their emotions. If their smile is genuine, you will be more likely to give a genuine smile back. However, if it’s a quick, emotionless smile, then that’s the same type of smile you will return. We use smiles to communicate what we feel just as much as we use words.

Sometimes when we’re in an emotionally threatening situation we will flash a quick smile. Not to be confused with a grimace, the fear or distress smile is for defence.

This smile is used for two possible reasons:

One, is to calm the person who’s causing the distress. The idea is that the attacker or threat will reciprocate the smile and become more at ease and less aggressive in the situation.

The second reason we smile in threatening situations is to give the impression that we are more relaxed than we really are—the smile masks our true fear and suggests we aren’t actually threatened by the situation at all.

When someone is telling a sad story, crying over a distressing event or being yelled at by their boss, if you notice a slight smile you’ll know they’re feeling truly distressed.

Cultural Importance

As well as when we smile to show joy or mask fear, we also smile when it’s socially and culturally expected. When walking down the street and making eye contact with someone, it’s natural for Americans to smile. However, in some other cultures, such as those in Russia and other Eastern European countries, it is considered suspicious and odd behavior to smile at people you don’t know.

It’s expected in American culture that you will smile when showing gratitude for a gift or compliment; but unless we experience true appreciation for the gift, it’s unlikely that we’ll produce a true Duchenne smile.

Smiling is a huge part of human expression and communication. We can share our fear, joy or anxiety all through a smile. Whether you have teeth as straight as a celebrity’s, hardly any teeth at all or if you have dentures, braces or whatever, let your true smile and feelings show. Don’t be afraid to let your joy shine through when you turn your mouth up and crinkle your eyes.

Smile and the world will smile with you.

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Assistant Editor: Lauren Savory/Editor: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: elephant archives}

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Tim Adams