The hidden power of smiling

[Video Link] Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap, gave a short TED talk about smiles as predictors of longevity.

I started my journey in California with a UC Berkley 30-year longitudinal study that examined the photos of students in an old yearbook and tried to measure their success and well-being throughout their life. By measuring their student smiles, researchers were able to predict how fulfilling and long-lasting a subject's marriage will be, how well she would score on standardized tests of well-being and how inspiring she would be to others. In another yearbook, I stumbled upon Barry Obama's picture. When I first saw his picture, I thought that these superpowers came from his super collar. But now I know it was all in his smile.

Another aha! moment came from a 2010 Wayne State University research project that looked into pre-1950s baseball cards of Major League players. The researchers found that the span of a players smile could actually predict the span of his life. Players who didn't smile in their pictures lived an average of only 72.9 years, where players with beaming smiles lived an average of almost 80 years.

Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling


  1. I don’t ever smile.

    I don’t see a need to, really; it’s just arbitrary facial muscle contractions.

    1. You feel no need to express happiness in a way that is universally understood by all of humankind regardless of age, intelligence, class, language, region, or ethnicity?

      I know I can’t make you smile, but I recommend examining your rationalization. Something is preventing joy from getting out of you.

    2. I suspect that people with social development disorders, such as autistics, would be exceptions to findings like this.

      But generally, with neurotypicals, it’s not “arbitrary” facial muscle contractions, any more than speech is arbitrary respiratory spasms and writing is arbitrary hand-arm gestures while accidentally holding a marking instrument.

      Faking facial expressions modifies your own mood, as well as modifying others interpretation of your mood. You begin to live your own lie.

      Again, for neurotypicals. I know my own expressions are sort of cartoonish – they’re done consciously as part of communication, because I know I need to add the visual signal – when communicating with neurotypicals. I get thought of as “less weird” when I make funny faces than when I don’t bother at all. *shrug*

      1. I am autistic. I suppose I should have mentioned that.

        You guys just keep on smiling, I’ll keep to myself.

        And to anon, you’d be surprised at how many cultures actually think you’re nuts if you smile. Smiling all the time is an American thing.

  2. I’m sure you could draw correlations between skull topography and life span if you looked at the data the right way. I wonder if anyone has ever conducted any research into that intriguing idea?

    1. What rot. As someone who has lived all over the globe, including currently in the U.S., I can say that that’s nonsense. Even the British, who have a myth about themselves as being less demonstrative than Americans and derive a sense of superiority over this, smile just s broadly when happy.

      In the talk the speaker referred to the universality of smiles, including in tribes that had had no contact with the rest of the planet. In the accompanying photo, a tribesman was grinning just as widely as any other grin I’ve seen.

      1. You can say that, but I’d like to point out to Amelia_G that you say a lot of insulting things apparently for the sake of it.

        Also, IMHO big broad smiles ARE an American hallmark. Such smiles may not be -uniquely- American, but that’s hardly ‘rot’ as far as a good faith discussion goes, and it’s also not what Amela_G said.

        (also, that the brits withhold them for more joyous occasions as you assert sort of adds to Amelia’s point rather than taking it down a notch)

        (also, a tribesman of whom there is a photo has been documented as being in contact with westerners, hardly helps your point much either)

        1. So it was me who was saying “a lot of insulting things apparently for the sake of it” and not arguing “in good faith,” when I was responding to the generalization of Americans all grinning all the time, in their glowing white sneakers, both images of which trigger the standard image of Americans being childish?

          And no, Brits don’t “withhold them for more joyous occasions,” at least not any more than Americans. This is exactly the myth that I was arguing against, which, again, is closely tied to the myth of non-Americans being somehow more mature than Americans.

          Show me data if you like, but otherwise your anecdotal generalizations are just as valid as mine, and mine stem from 25 years of living in Europe, 2 years in Africa and 5 years in the US.

          (And no, neither of you mentioned the words “childish” or “mature,” but don’t try to say that this isn’t the classic type of generalization that feeds into that standard stereotype.)

          1. Hi SamSam,

            “Childish” was not a stereotype I associated with this phenomenon. I’m more concerned about “schizophrenic.” I don’t like it when there’s a gap between reality and what people are expressing. It confuses the actual children.

            One of my best childhood friends in fact became schizophrenic in (US) high school. The first sign I noticed was when he started obsessively analyzing yearbook photos at lunch, announcing our classmates had a good side and an evil side. He thought he saw evidence for this in the fact that most of the yearbook photos were 3/4 views rather than full-on mug shots. Mr. Gutman’s yearbook research must be scientifically valid but his method made me uneasy due to this past experience.

            I don’t understand fear of clowns, but: doesn’t a society that mandates permanent smiles turn us all into clowns of a sort?


  3. This is anecdotal, but: I have observed cross-cultural responses to the same photo in which the non-American observer thought the photo’s subject looked thoughtful and nuanced and the American observer thought the photo’s subject looked disturbingly unhappy because the giant grin was missing.

    1. People are always assuming I’m depressed or furious when actually grinning like that makes my face ache. It never happened outside the USA unless I was actually really unhappy, and furious in me is hard to miss if you know me at all.

      Also, while I suspect people who are happy live much longer, it saddens me that this is doubtlessly going to be taken up into the armamentarium of those witless jackasses, almost always male, who go round exhorting women to smile at them, because G-d forbid a woman actually be lost in her own thoughts. And I’m pretty sure that forced smiles don’t count. Not to mention, these jackfruits piss me off–I’m not usually angry before they call me out for not grinning like Alfred E. Neumann, but I always am afterwards.

  4. Science BS.

    These are not real markers.

    People who smile more, have a better outlook on life and it is self-reinforcing.

    This is nonsense. The smile does not cause happiness, you cannot hard-wire happiness by smiling all the time, it is cultural too.

    People who go around smiling all the time, with a wide stupid grin are usually stupid, hence the living longer.

    File this under NO-DUH.


  5. “I’ve trained myself not to laugh or smile. I watched a hundred hours of the Three Stooges; every time I felt like smiling or laughing, I jabbed myself in the stomach with a cattle prod.”

  6. There was a study done years ago where men and women went about their day not smiling. The men were treated normally and the women were subjected to an incessant barrage of, “Smile, honey!”, “What’s wrong?” and “Are you okay?” I’m going to take a wild guess that, after the subjects left, there was also a lot of “What a bitch” and “What’s up her ass?”

  7. What about laughing?

    I don’t smile that much: I am a happy person, but I am most often lost in thought or observing something. If I am paying close attention, my face doesn’t naturally form a grin. However, I laugh very often and have a good sense humour. So does that count as ‘smiling’?

    It kinda bugs me that people are expected to be smiling brightly 24/7. Even if you are not wearing a permanent grin doesn’t mean you are scowling either. What’s wrong with a serene, contemplative expression?

  8. I never smile if I can help it. Showing one’s teeth is a submission signal in primates. When someone smiles at me, all I see is a chimpanzee begging for its life.
    – Dwight Schrute

  9. There was research into if smiling people live longer?
    A research if people who have a reason to smile will live longer?
    A study that looked into if happier people will live longer than average?


    What happened to using common sense?

  10. Oh my goodness!


    The finest sort of science!

    I’m prepping my talk for next year about how it turns out height determines how likely you are to become president more than any other factor. I mean, have you seen any 5’1″ presidents? I rest my case. The year after that: amount of ice-cream eaten correlates VERY positively with life expectancy across the past and present human population. Chew on that for a moment.

    1. I’m prepping my talk for next year about how it turns out height determines how likely you are to become president more than any other factor.

      Funnily enough, the example that you’ve chosen is actually true. The taller candidate wins 80% of the time.

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