The Nature of a Smile

smiling-babyOnce, I had occasion to share a taxi with a couple of women, and one of them, noticing a water tower as we passed it, mentioned how she’d trained herself to smile every time she saw one. At first it was a conscious act, not quite forced (because that’s a harsh word, and the effort was not difficult), but she did it and then, she said, after a bit, it became automatic. Water towers made her smile. She didn’t leap into fits of joy, or feel a sudden rush of orgiastic happiness, but eventually seeing one would give her a little boost of bliss because, believe it or not, the physical act of smiling can do that.

Normally it’s the other way around, isn’t it? You feel good so you smile. There’s an existing and well-documented cause and effect relationship that nobody ever thinks might work in the other direction, and yet the two aspects of the thing are so closely related that apparently it does.

The physical mechanics of a genuine smile are pretty straightforward. Genuine, I said, because we can always fake it but those phony ones are easy to spot, and I suspect you’re even trying it yourself right now. A proper Duchenne smile as it’s been called, one that reflects happiness, joy, even simple peace, and can, in fact, inspire them both in the person smiling and anyone seeing it, is a unique animal. The Association for Psychological Science, in an article published online in December of 2010, said:

…only the peculiar tango of the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi produces a genuine expression of positive emotion.

Honestly, I tried to come up with a unique way of putting it myself, a curious and entrancing mix of metaphor and actual anatomical reference, but I am way too old to reinvent the wheel. Those muscle groups are the ones in your cheek and around your eyes, and the term refers to Guillaume Duchenne, a French anatomist who ostensibly did experiments by using electricity to stimulate the facial muscles of severed heads (executed ne’er-do-wells, we can hope). He also said we can fake it, but only the “sweet emotions of the soul” gets it right each time. Though Steven Tyler might have something to say about it, I’m choosing to believe that’s where he got at least part of the inspiration for that song he wrote in ‘75 (that, and Joe Perry’s wife).

I’d thought of apologising in advance for this next bit but I’m not going to. Neener neener.

Everyone has heard of the runner’s high. Working out or even having an orgasm (which is a sort of work out) causes the central nervous system and the pituitary gland to release endorphins, a natural opioid with effects similar to morphine. In the parlance of the book-learned, it is a neuropeptide, facilitating communication between neurons like a UPS driver going between the depot and your house. Antidepressants commonly fall into a category called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), affecting the manner in which brain cells take back serotonin, another neurotransmitter that deals specifically with the regulation of mood; The UPS depot locks some of its doors, traffic slows, and your Amazon parcel is late. And then there’s dopamine, a chemical any paramedic will recognise as a vasodilator, but also a chemical messenger used in the brain and heavily involved in reward-motived behaviour. UPS finally delivers your new Crazy Cat Lady action figure (Amazon actually sells those), and you get to play with it. Binky, I know what I’m getting you for Christmas next year.

All of this happens when you smile, too.

The inspiration for this exploration of a simple facial expression we often take too much for granted came from a few moments last month when I was sitting across a desk from a social worker at my local community food bank. Clients are required yearly to provide proof of income and expenses in order to access services, and it was my turn. He didn’t smile. He was somewhat officious and seemed put-off, but I’m not going to posit his reasons. I will, however, say that I felt uncomfortable, very awkward, and a distinctly bothersome burden to both him and society as a whole. Moods are very contagious, they’re like bubbles we extend out that colour those of the people we engage with, and if he had just smiled once that colour change would’ve been surprisingly dramatic. It’s ingrained in us to reflect moods like this. Smile at a baby and see what the baby does. Here’s a hint: It will not be a duck-face. Please stop doing that, it’s creepy.

Smiles don’t have to be face-scrunchingly massive to do their job, and the level of joy we’re feeling is not always echoed in how much the muscles actually do contract. By the same token, you don’t have to make the tiring effort of looking like the Joker to get the effects of it, either. Just build it, and they will come (that’s right, I went there).

So find your water tower. Mine has organically developed into cute pictures of dogs, or babies, or babies with dogs, and the occasional kitten, and I seek these out for a quick hit of my favourite chemical joy and often annoy Facebook friends with too many posts of them because I’m a nice person and like to share the happiness. It doesn’t change my life, but it sometimes changes my day, and when it doesn’t do that it can just change my moment.

I’ll take that for now.


The Psychological Study of Smiling,  The Association for Psychological Science, 2010
Duchenne, Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, 1862
There’s Magic in Your Smile, Psychology Today, 2012

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One thought on “The Nature of a Smile

  1. Pingback: The Nature of Beauty | Patrick Riley

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