‘Real’ Smiles Evoke Joyfulness

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What happens to our ability to smile when we face the camera? And why do driver’s license and passport photos often have such a stiff, unnatural look to them?

The long over-looked findings of a 19th century French neurologist may hold the key. Now psychologist Paul Ekman and his colleagues have picked up on the findings of Duchenne de Boulogne and taken them a step further.

Duchenne demonstrated that a true smile of joy involves both the mouth and eye muscles. In 1862 he wrote that “joy is expressed on the face by the combined contraction” of these muscles. We can easily manipulate the mouth muscle, which is known as the pars lateralis, is triggered involuntarily by what Duchenne called “the sweet emotions of the soul.” Smiles involving this muscle reflect “Duchenne’s marker” — laugh wrinkles around the eyes.

Elkman’s group of researchers discovered that we can learn to voluntarily activate the pars lateralis. They conducted EEG studies of brain activity demonstrating that stimulation of this muscle produces more activity in the left side of the brain, an area associated with positive emotions. An early report of this research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, but publicized more widely when Science covered it more recently.

Of particular note was their discovery that the connection works both ways— that is, forcing yourself into a real smile tends to evoke joy. In other words, there really is a scientific basis for the advice to “Smile…it will make you feel better.”

(We found this article in the Cross Timbers Gazette!)

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