When we’re young, we’re taught that each expression shows a particular emotion: we frown because we’re sad, scowl because we’re angry, and, of course, smile because we’re happy. We’ve already seen how biochemistry inverts this a little bit: we’re partly happy because we smile.
But now researchers are claiming that smiles aren’t really about what we feel inside so much as what we want to communicate with others. Their research is still preliminary, but it does give us important insight into what your smile means and why it matters.
The Engagement Smile
For this study, researchers selected 44 participants aged 18-35. Subjects were asked to play a geography quiz game with nine difficult questions. The questions were hard enough that all subjects frequently got the wrong answer. They played the game on the computer alone, but their facial expressions were recorded by video.
After the game, subjects were asked to describe their subjective experience using a range of 12 emotions, including “bored,” “interested,” “happy,” “frustrated” and “engaged.” Researchers then identified how many times people smiled while taking the quiz and compared the amount of smiling to their subjective emotions. Smiling was most associated with the emotion of engagement.
It turns out that people didn’t smile when they were figuring out the answer. They were more likely to smile when the computer informed them whether they were right or wrong. Surprisingly, people were more likely to smile when they got an answer wrong than when they got it right.
Smiling as Social Tool
Researchers explained this behavior by saying that smiles aren’t about expressing happiness. They’re more of a social tool that people use when they’re engaged and want to engage others in an interaction.
This is not exactly separate from smiling’s function as an expression of and source of happiness. When we smile during a social interaction, we are rewarding ourselves, and the people who see our smile are likely to emulate it. When they smile, they also feel happy about the engagement. This mutual reward helps to establish and strengthen positive associations with the interpersonal relationship.
A Beautiful Smile Is an Important Social Asset
The social role of smiling is why almost Americans agree that an attractive smile is important in personal and professional relationships. It also helps remind us that your smile is not just an expression of yourself, it’s also an important communication with others. Your smile helps to build strong interpersonal relationships, no matter what kind of relationships those may be.
If you feel uncomfortable with your smile or feel that it’s not a social asset, we can help. Cosmetic dentistry gives us the tools to transform your smile into one you’re proud to share in any situation.