What’s up with life’s most universal expression?
People in general (behaviorists, cosmetologists, dentists, publicists, plastic surgeons, photographers and clowns in particular) consider the smile a topic of toothsome significance. No culture on Earth lacks its due ration of smiles. Humans from every societal dimension are in some way tuned to the engines of smiling. Lunatics grin; scoundrels smirk; heroes beam; strangers leer; halfwits simper; starlets glow. We have smiles for all occasions: sexy smiles, evil smiles, wooden smiles, creepy smiles, happy smiles, stupid smiles, hypnotic smiles, knowing smiles, artificial smiles, ironic smiles and hideous smiles. We can’t escape this onslaught of smiles—and W. C. Fields plainly understood this fact when he said, “Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.”
Anthropologists and biologists often trace the origins of the human smile to something called the “fear grin.” Apes and monkeys of bygone boondocks mystified predators by flashing their teeth and grinning with a fecklessness that was at once admirable and repulsive. Scientists are conflicted about whether modern animals other than humans can smile. Some believe dogs have a sense of humor and can actually laugh; others claim science needs to pin down the essence of our own emotions before making claims about our nonhuman neighbors.
Genuine smiles have a name: Duchenne smiles, named after Guillaume Duchenne, a French doctor who ran experiments in the 1800s to create the perfect smile. Duchenne plugged electrodes in human faces to jazz up the muscles and watch the results. Simply put, a Duchenne smile is one that demands input from both the mouth and eyes, unlike a fake smile, aka Pan Am, botox or social smile, which relies on the mouth alone. For what it’s worth, a recent study shows that 70 percent of people can easily fake a Duchenne smile.
Today, the human smile is often used to diss the frown, which supposedly calls on more muscles while operating. What’s that adage? Frowning engages 43 muscles (or any large number of muscles you choose); smiling takes only 17 (or any smaller number you choose). Ergo, smiling is inherently greener because the expression conserves more energy. As it happens, the adage might have to run away and pout. According to David Song, a Chicago physician specializing in facial reconstructive surgery, smiling requires 12 muscles, frowning only 11.
Writing for Forbes, Ron Gutman, the entrepreneurial CEO of HealthTap, pointed out that 3D ultrasound technology has captured ripening infants smiling in the womb. Newborns smile in their sleep and babies begin smiling with a purpose at the age of four to six weeks. Children of most any age can churn out as many as 400 smiles daily—the sunniest adult averages around 20.
Cultural upbringing has a lot to do with your smile quotient. For example, Americans are smile factories; Russians seem to store their smiles in Siberia. Americans imagine Russians are a gloomy bunch; Russians worry that Americans are airheads. Americans regard smiling as a sign of friendliness; Russians mark smiling in public as suspicious behavior. The Chinese seem to provide the best counsel on smiling: Never show more than eight teeth or else people will see you as goofy instead of friendly.
Gutman also pointed to a study in the United Kingdom that employed neuroimaging and heart monitors to measure mood enhancement from assorted stimuli. The study revealed that one smile can stimulate the brain with the same force as 2,000 chocolate bars (Snickers, Hershey, Cadbury, they didn’t say). The study also discovered that smiling can pack the same emotional impact as winning £16,000, or a little less than $25,000. So much for the million-dollar smile.
Bottom line, though, smiling makes you happier even if you smile for no good reason. Research indicates that the body regularly pilots the mind and not always the other way around. Smack a big, bright grin on your face and the look might start out phony, but it will wind up real because your body will trick your mind into thinking you really are chipper. On top of that, people who witness your smile will probably start smiling, too. Smiles, researchers insist, are more infectious than the measles.
Of course, celebrities are geniuses at the art of smiling. Sophia Loren melted camera lenses (and brains) with a tilt of her lips. Kate Middleton polishes thrones with her earth-princess grin. Jack Nicholson chopped down doors with his teeth. Fans swear you can see Taylor Lautner’s smile from space. (Who the heck is Taylor Lautner?) And just so you know, the 2013 Water Pik Best Celebrity Smile Poll picked Jennifer Lopez for best female smile; Denzel Washington took the top spot for male smiles. Who knew dental health played such a crucial role in the care and flare of a killer smile? DCTC Dental Assistant students, that’s who.