Crack A Smile: The Psychology Behind Smiling

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5 min read

Healthy Matters

If there is a list of things we are missing out on during COVID, smiles have to be on the list.


Since the pandemic, we have been living with a mask on. We no longer see each other’s facial expressions in full. It is almost inevitable that we miss out on all those lovely smiles we used to exchange every day, with our family and friends, with the security guard downstairs, and even with strangers on the street. Smiles that we took for granted.


Sealed behind masks, we no longer see or share smiles in public. What else are we missing out on in our social interactions and emotional experience?


Learn more about the psychology behind smiling to find out the answers, and why smiling is good for you.


Types of smile

A smile is worth a thousand words. Indeed, smiles come in many variations, contexts and clues. Apart from emotions, different variables usually play a part in affecting the frequency and character of a grin, including age, gender, culture or social settings. Can you tell these most common types of smiles apart?


1. Duchenne smile

the Duchenne smile

The Duchenne smile is a heartfelt smile that signals true and genuine enjoyment. When you flash a Duchenne smile, the toothy smile lifts up so high that it reaches your eyes, the corners of your eyes wrinkle up with crow’s feet (little lines spreading out). It is the closest to what we call “grinning from ear to ear”.


2. Reward smile

reward smile

Reward smiles are what we use to motivate ourselves and other people, consciously or not. They normally show up during positive sensory and social experiences. When others perceive a reward smile, it elicits positive feelings and thereby a facial imitation from them. A reward smile looks like this: your cheeks and the corners of your mouth raise symmetrically.


3. Affiliative smile

affiliative smile

Affiliative smiles can facilitate social connectedness. How? Associated with benign intent, this type of expression shows that you are approachable, willing to acknowledge and reconcile with others.


The smile is seen as soft and gentle, with a subtle upward pull of the lips that often triggers dimples. To communicate a sense of kindness and sympathy, our lips may remain closed to hide our teeth as bared-teeth expressions can signal primitive aggression.


4. Polite smile

the polite smile

Polite smiles are arguably the most commonplace expression in daily life as part of social etiquette. You may use it right off the bat when you are introduced to someone, try to shy away from prying questions, make light of awkward situations… The list goes on and on. Your eyes betray you when you wear a polite smile, as it stays in the lips without reaching the eyes.


Polite smiles come across as reserved, although they are intended for maintaining a pleasant demeanor in social situations (to avoid looking like a bump on a log). It helps you maintain a suitable distance with those you are not close with.


While polite smiles do not match up to the Duchenne smiles in terms of emotional intimacy, it can be similarly effective in demonstrating cordial trustworthiness.

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Functions of smiling

People are brilliant when it comes to detecting the genuineness of smiles in social situations. In most cases, smiling can signal friendliness and encourage positive social interactions. We are more easily attracted to people who are happy, regardless of their physical appearance. It is even research-proven that people who express their genuine happiness more often enjoy satisfying social relationships. Smiles play a part in building an intimate relationship in which separation is less likely to happen.

Smiling is also instrumental in cultivating resilience and gratitude. According to Bonanno and Keltner, smiling may help us get through events that trigger negative emotions. For example, when people grieve, those who describe their relationship with the deceased with genuine smiling and laughing are more likely to manage their grief successfully. The Duchenne smile can empower people to manage their negative emotions in the long term. Apart from improving the positive dimension of our mental well-being, smiling also reduces the incidence of negative emotions, such as hostility or aggressiveness.


Happier people smile more. A simple smile can already give a boost to dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, giving you a good feeling in the moment, besides contributing to building social relationships and bringing life satisfaction over time.

Should you fake a smile?

Some findings may encourage you to fake your smile until you feel it. Smile, even a forced one, can produce an instant positive effect on your mood. Researchers forced the facial muscles of participants to recreate the movement of a smile by holding a pen in their mouth. It concluded that facial muscular activity not only altered one’s facial expression but also generated more positive emotions.


On the contrary, many researchers in the field cannot replicate such results. Although most research found no harm in smiling, a recent study revealed that habitually forcing yourself to smile can have adverse effects. It is almost an unspoken rule for service workers to wear a smile for customers all the time. A 2019 study by Grandey and her colleagues on US service workers found that they are more prone to heavy drinking after work due to toxic positivity. While plastering on a smile may not align with how they feel deep down, the pressure to exude positivity will backfire and further hurt their mental health.


Overall, smiling may make us feel better but ultimately it cannot bring happiness. We all have that experience of forcing an obligatory smile to get over awkward situations, but the rule of thumb is try to be true to yourself and your feelings, as it is impossible to fake a genuine smile. Imagine telling a sad friend to fake a smile, they would probably feel worse afterwards.

How to get true smiles?

So, what can we do to look and truly be cheerful? Below are some easy feel-good tricks to get natural smiles:


Find humor in life

If you have been feeling down in the dumps or noticed that you have not experienced joy for a while, try to find humor in your everyday life. An amusing movie or some laugh-out-loud jokes will do. You may also revisit things you enjoyed in the past to seek happiness.


Surround yourself with the “right people”

Humans are social creatures. Social connectedness is associated with lower risk of depression and better life satisfaction. Our face lights up when we feel the love and positivity of our companions. Try to spend more time with people who can put a smile on your face, it can be as simple as that.


Practice thankfulness

Perspective-taking is easier said than done but it can definitely turn your life around. Life is all about how you approach things. Even in your tough times, look for the good and acknowledge it. There must be something worth being grateful for, and it will open the door to happiness.


What psychology says about smiles?

Smiling can have various positive effects on our mental well-being. In most cases, it can signal friendliness, encourage positive social interactions and assist in the cultivation of resilience. Smiling can be a big boost when we go through events that trigger negative emotions.


Smiling more also brings a good feeling and adds to life satisfaction. When we smile, our brain releases more dopamine, endorphins and serotonin.

What happens if you smile too much?
How do I make myself smile?
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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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