Viewpoint: The Power of a Smile

Contributed By the Church News

  • 23 November 2014

A study has found that smiling can positively impact lives long-term.

Article Highlights

  • A study found that those who genuinely smiled in yearbook photos had better marriages, relationships, and life satisfaction.
  • Smiles translate to similar emotions in all languages.
  • Smiling stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers.

“I will never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish.” —Mother Teresa

In the book The Face of Emotion by Carroll E. Izard, the author explains that smiling is a positive expression understood by the entire human family, regardless of culture, race, or religion. Cross-cultural studies have found that even among remote tribes of people who have little contact with Western civilization, smiles are generated for the same reasons as other people around the world.

President Thomas S. Monson said: “Love is expressed in many recognizable ways: a smile, a wave, a kind comment, a compliment. Other expressions may be more subtle, such as showing interest in another’s activities, teaching a principle with kindness and patience, visiting one who is ill or homebound. These words and actions and many others can communicate love” (“Love—the Essence of the Gospel,” April 2014 general conference).

When it comes to the science of smiling there are two types of smiles. The Association of Psychological Science indicates that a natural smile or “Duchenne smile” (named after a French anatomist) stimulates the muscles of the mouth into the popular expression. The forced smile or “Pan Am Smile” is named after the now defunct Pan American airline company culture of requiring flight crews to greet every customer with a smile all the time as part of their corporate image.

A 30-year study by psychologists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner at the University of California at Berkley studied 141 high school senior-class photos from the 1960 yearbook of Mills College. Trained psychologists examined the photos and separated the real and fake smiles into two groups. They were split about fifty-fifty. All of the smilers were contacted at age 27, 43, and 52 and asked about the status of their marriage and life satisfaction. Was there a link to smiling and happiness? The results were fascinating.

The women with natural smiles were more likely to be married and stay married and also more likely to experience a greater sense of personal well-being. These results were found to be consistent in a 30-year followup. The study also discovered that good looks had no relationship with marital status or life satisfaction. The conclusion was that a habit of genuine smiling may contribute to happiness and better adjustment in life.

President Monson said: “Love is expressed in many recognizable ways: a smile, a wave, a kind comment, a compliment. Other expressions may be more subtle, such as showing interest in another’s activities, teaching a principle with kindness and patience, visiting one who is ill or homebound. These words and actions and many others can communicate love.”

In September of 2011, the Church News reported on the Church’s efforts with Operation Smile, a children’s charity that helps perform cleft palate surgery. In 2010 the Church donated nearly $1 million to Operation Smile because it felt so strongly about helping children by not only correcting a defect that is detrimental to their physical well-being but also making it possible for them to smile. The Church has made a 20-year commitment of help to the charity. Chadleen Alberth-Lacdo-o, a 16-year-old surgery recipient from the Philippines, said, “My whole life changed. I had no confidence inside of me before, but I’m now living the life of a normal kid” (“Welfare Program Recognized for Helping 3,800 Children Smile after Cleft Surgery”).

Every child in the Church is taught through singing the importance of a smile with the Primary song “Smiles.” The lyrics read, “If you chance to meet a frown, do not let it stay. Quickly turn it upside down and smile that frown away. No one likes a frowning face. Change it for a smile. Make the world a better place by smiling all the while” (Children’s Songbook, p. 267).

Eric Savitz, a staff reporter with Forbes magazine reported, “Smiling is not just a universal means of communicating, it’s also a frequent one. More than 30 percent of us smile more than 20 times a day and less than 14 percent of us smile less than 5 times a day. In fact, those with the greatest superpowers are actually children, who smile as many as 400 times per day!” (“The Untapped Power of Smiling,” 2011). Another reason the Lord has asked us to “become as little children.”

Mother Teresa said, “I will never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish.”

Did Jesus ever smile? The scriptures explain He smiled when He found His disciples doing righteous behavior. “And when Jesus had spoken these words he came again unto his disciples; and behold they did pray steadfastly, without ceasing, unto him; and he did smile upon them again” (3 Nephi 19:30).

The Lord also smiled when the prophet Noah was obedient in following the commandments. “Wherefore Enoch saw that Noah built an ark; and that the Lord smiled upon it, and held it in his own hand; but upon the residue of the wicked the floods came and swallowed them up” (Moses 7:43).

A smiling study conducted by Penn State University in 2005 concluded that when a people smile they not only appear more likeable and courteous but also more competent. An even more interesting study by British researchers stated that smiling can stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers in ways similar to chocolate, a well-known pleasure inducer (“Key to Happiness: Simple Act Makes You Happier Than 2,000 Bars of Chocolate Can,” Deseret News, Sept. 30, 2013).

We believe as Latter-day Saints that the gospel of joy has been restored in its fulness. Because of the Restoration, prophets speak and “there is hope smiling brightly before us,” as presented in the lyrics to “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” With so many blessings, both spiritual and temporal, there are many reasons to smile.

President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency illustrated this by saying, “My wife and I read messages and see photographs sent by two of our granddaughters serving as the Lord’s missionaries in South America. They send us photos of smiling people with joy shining in their faces. My granddaughters send messages of gratitude and love for the effects of the Atonement in the lives of people they have taught and seen transformed by their choice to follow the Savior’s example to be baptized and receive the ministration of the Holy Ghost (“The Gift of a Savior,” 2010 First Presidency Christmas Devotional).