“There’s daggers in men’s smiles.” — Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The quote above from Macbeth hints at some of the complexity and ambiguity of the smile. You might be used to thinking of the smile as something fairly simple: an expression of happiness or affection. And you’re right, but it is much more than that. Smiles play a nuanced and highly variable role in social interaction. They are central to how we present ourselves, are loaded with context-dependent meaning, and are used to display our intentions and feelings—whether honestly or otherwise.
Smiles are also controlled by some of the same facial muscles that you’ve been working hard to free from bracing for the last two chapters. Leaving those muscles braced will make your smile frail and submissive and make it harder to connect positively with others. Relieving them from tension and then strengthening them under diaphragmatic conditions will make your smile beam. Before we dive into the exercises you can use to do that, it will help to have a look at how and why animals smile.
The smile has a convoluted but fascinating origin. In most mammals, drawing back the lips to reveal the teeth is done in preparation for biting. Baring the teeth keeps the animal from biting into its lips. It is also used as a flash of the fangs, warning other animals that it is angry. When accompanied by a growl, it is called a snarl. Thus, revealing the teeth is an expression of blatant aggression or the intention to take a bite.1 In primates, the signal is more complicated.
In monkeys, lifting the top lip communicates that the displaying animal feels threatened. This often occurs when the animal is cornered, trapped, or cannot take flight. In nearly all primates, the startle reflex is accompanied by a grin (mouth corner retraction) and a shrill vocalization. This reflexive “grin-and-shriek” pattern communicates that the animal is jeopardized or intimidated.2 As you can see, baring the teeth is tied to the neural circuits responsible for fight or flight. The flash of the teeth, especially teeth held together, is used to appease dominant group members, exclaiming, “I am stressed, but my mouth is closed and I am willing to submit.” It is a self-handicapping signal and an admission of fear. As submission increases, the gaze is averted, the ears are drawn back, and the lips are retracted further, both horizontally and vertically, revealing more of the teeth and even parts of the gums. This can be contrasted with the facial response associated with anger. As anger increases, the stare widens, the ears are brought forward, and the lips are contracted, obscuring the teeth.
In short, fear is associated with displaying the teeth and dominance with concealing them. In many monkey species, if a dominant male chases a subordinate and the subordinate grins, expressing fear, the dominant animal will relent, stop chasing, and leave them alone. If the dominant male were to grin, by contrast, the subordinate would approach and embrace him. Thus, the precise function of the signal is context-bound.
Things get even more complicated when we narrow the field to our closest relatives, the great apes. Among apes, baring the teeth can serve a range of purposes depending on the situation and what other expressions are involved. Like the human smile, an ape’s grin can function to show submission, attempt appeasement, or solicit affection.3 A quick grin is often flashed between social equals. Chimpanzees, for instance, can often be seen grinning at each other before they embrace. A silent bared-teeth expression is usually associated with assurance and affiliation. A relaxed face with an open mouth, baring the bottom teeth, is associated with play.
So, where a monkey’s grin communicates either surprise or insecurity, humans and other apes have generalized and expanded the expression to convey compliance, affiliation, and play. However, because it has its origins in fear and appeasement, even the human smile is neurologically linked to distressed breathing and the sympathetic system. In other words, our smiles carry within them both the positive and negative signals that were inherited from our ape ancestors. Consequently, they do not automatically communicate goodwill. This is unfortunate because it means that fun and affection can be intrinsically tied to stress. The exercises in this chapter will teach you how to dissociate this negativity from your smile.
Illustration 10.1: A. Baboon baring the teeth; B. Chimpanzee making a threat display; Chimpanzee with a friendly grin
We can start by reviewing how our smiles come to be linked to negative emotions in the first place. Consider the people who have the best, most reliable smiles: models, cheerleaders, professional greeters, or front-desk staff. These are people who have been expected to keep unflinching smiles on their faces for hours at a time. At first, the experience must have been uncomfortable for many of them, causing defensive, nervous breathing. Over time, though, these professional smilers would have had no choice but to learn to breathe sustainably while smiling, leading to the gradual pairing of relaxed breathing with their grins. This is what I want for you.
Most of us don’t possess that healthy link because we have never had to smile consistently for long periods. Without that kind of training, a smile typically speeds up our heart rates, makes our breathing shallow, places stress on our vocal cords, and activates trigger points in our faces. The social smiling behavior of humans is often nervous and compulsory. For instance, we smile when something awkward happens because we feel like we have to. Because most of us routinely pair smiling with distressed breathing, we have badly strained smiling muscles and offer insincere, uncomfortable smiles.
Dominant people are less likely to smile and more likely to frown. On average, bosses and managers smile less often than their employees, for instance. High-status individuals are permitted to display their negative emotions more freely and are not expected to provide appeasement displays to the people around them. On the other hand, low-status people are expected to stifle negative and competitive feelings and actively display signs of affiliation.4 Studies have found that low-ranking children smile more when approaching high-ranking children than high rankers do when approaching low rankers. Studies also show that smiling is commonly associated with approval seeking and low social status in adults. In children, it is associated with low peer “toughness” ratings. In light of such relationships, smiling is often taken for weakness.
Several studies have found that women prefer men who don’t smile. Other researchers discovered that in mixed martial arts, the fighter who smiles less during the weigh-in is more likely to win the match. However, the researchers in both cases were indiscriminate about the type of smile they looked for—they didn’t distinguish between healthy, assertive smiles and sheepish, startled, submissive ones. An assertive, optimal smile is highly attractive and would likely predict victory in a fight. Smiling indicates social weakness only if the smiling muscles are strained and if smiling automatically recruits distressed breathing. Retraining your smile by pairing it with diaphragmatic breathing will make it so that your smile does not drain you but is, instead, effortless and empowering.
When I was a very young child, my grandmother told my mother that she was concerned about me because she could not perceive any joy in my smile. Some early experiences had caused me to pair smiling with shallow breathing, and my smile always appeared puny, melancholy, and forced. Chimps from the same group will show great variation in their capacity for smiling. Some smile feebly and yet other demonstrate “gingival” smiles, showing their gums. In my twenties, I started working toward that healthy smile. I decided to spend time smiling intensely to build up my smiling muscles. I would go on long walks or watch entire movies, smiling widely the whole time. Most of the time, I was also squinting and breathing shallowly, but even so, I achieved noticeable results within a few weeks. After ten cumulative hours of smiling widely, my face looked bigger and stronger, my cheeks were more muscular, and my smile was more believable.
Two close friends, on separate occasions, commented on the increased size of my smile. Then they told me to smile more widely still. When I tried, they each said: “No, smile up higher.” I couldn’t. They made a disappointed face and dropped the subject. They were disappointed because even though I was able to build lower sections of my smiling muscles, the section closest to the tendon that anchors into the cheekbone (the section with the biggest potential for growth) had not grown. This higher section, where the zygomatic muscle attaches to the cheek, didn’t respond to the exercise because it was dormant. After diligently practicing the facial massage Exercise 9.8 from the last chapter, I was able to smile up into my cheekbones. The before and after pictures below illustrate the difference.
Figure 10.1: A. My smile at age 28 looks sour and unsustainable. I have rings under my eyes, thick lower eyelids, upturned nostrils, deep marionette lines, heavy sneering, and the bulk of the smile is located around my nose rather than on my cheekbones; B. By 34, each of those patterns has been reversed. The change resulted from gradually massaging away the tension and pain and strengthening the smiling muscles using firm contractions and deep breathing.
The massage of your zygomatic muscles described in Chapter 9 is complemented by the following muscle-building exercise.
Smiling as wide as I could stretched my lips so much that they would become chapped or even crack after doing the exercise above. Don’t get discouraged by this. Gentle smiling for a few minutes a day will stretch your lips back to their optimal length over a few weeks.
One of the rewards of maintaining a smile for several minutes while breathing diaphragmatically is the involuntary relaxation of muscles you don’t need but that you normally tense up while smiling. Within a minute or two, you’ll feel the tension in muscles all around your face, head, and neck start to ease. The process will gradually isolate your actual smile from the facial contortions that typically accompany it. That isolation has significant benefits. Usually, some 15 different muscles are involved in smiling; when you stop smiling, many of those muscles remain tense because the smile forced latent trigger points within them to become active. This is part of why smiling causes many people to lose their composure quickly, which can make them reluctant to smile at all.
Illustration 10.2: The first column shows a zygomatic smile and the zygomaticus muscles that underlie it. The second shows the risorius and buccinator muscles and their contribution to the smile. The third shows the sneer and the muscles that contribute to it. Try to use more of the first two and less of the third in your smile.
Completely relax the sneer, the squint, and the eyebrow raise when you practice diaphragmatic smiling. You want to contract only the muscles needed (zygomatic, risorius, and buccinator). At first, your isolated smile will look and feel uncomfortable and you might feel like a kooky weirdo. It might also feel sarcastic or counterfeit. With time, though, this will become your preferred way of smiling. In essence, the expression you’re practicing takes the expressionless face we developed in Chapter 8 and places a smile on top of it. The longer you breathe calmly while holding that isolated smile, the more natural and affable it will become.
Reduce the Extent of Squinting When You Smile
There are many kinds of smiles. Most famously, mid-19th-century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne identified two types of smiles. The first is a fake smile, also called a “Pan Am” smile, named for the polite expressions worn by the (now defunct) airline’s flight staff. Second, he described an authentic or “Duchenne” smile that employs the orbicularis oculi muscles and forms crow’s feet around the eyes. Subsequent research has found that the Duchenne smile (with its associated crinkle of the eyes) is more closely associated with positive emotions.5 That has led some scientists to assume that, to elicit happiness, smiles must include heavy squinting. I disagree.
In my experience, emotionally damaged people often squint the hardest when they smile, and emotionally healthy people squint the least. Methodically reducing the extent of your squinting will reduce eye strain without making your smile any less authentic. Work on smiling without much squinting, without raising your eyebrows, and more generally without contracting anywhere but in the smiling muscles themselves. Using the exercises from the last chapter to massage your forehead and the orbits of your eyes will help with this. It will also help you develop the ability to smile big, all the way up the sides of your cheeks, without squinting much at all. If you had been raised in an ideal, utopian environment with no threats, that’s how you would smile. It might look like the smile of a deranged clown right now. But that’s okay because it will become splendid once you become accustomed to doing it while breathing with your diaphragm.
Illustration 10.3: A. Smile with heavy squinting; B. Using the fingertips to sense squinting contractions; C. Smile without squinting.
In Chapter 5, I described my efforts to remain calm while babysitting a two-year-old. That day I sat next to some blocks and pretended to play with them, lifting them, stacking them, and passing them to the little girl. I used a completely isolated, wide-eyed smile that would have looked wacky to anyone over the age of three. She saw it, she sensed that my breathing was calm, she liked the way I was sharing the blocks in a respectful way, and so she reciprocated the same smile. Within a few minutes, I lost all concern that she was judgmentally inspecting my smile. We played for hours with these silly, calm little smiles. By the time her parents came home, our smiles had gone from kooky to credible, and I have been able to utilize that same relaxed smile in the company of adults ever since.
It might help you to find a safe situation in which to practice your new smile. You might work on your “calm smile” with a stuffed animal, a pet, or even a friend you have recruited to help you. After practicing in these situations, you can start to generalize this ability to situations that feel less safe, like running errands or sitting in traffic. This is another case in which we can benefit from a “fake it until you make it” approach. If you don’t create concocted social environments where you feel perfectly comfortable smiling carefree, you will never do it. Like Schopenhauer, I was cynical in my belief that life (or other people) was not creating these optimal scenarios for me. It is our responsibility to create them for ourselves and to share them with others.
It is important to incorporate a full contraction of the risorius and buccinator muscles into your smile. Both pull your lips horizontally. The risorius muscles lie about an inch below your cheekbone, anchoring to the corner of your mouth on one side and the soft tissue of your cheek on the other. The nearby buccinator muscles aid in the risorius smile as well as in whistling, puckering, and chewing. I previously used my risorius and buccinator muscles very little in my smile. When I fully contracted them, they made my smile look pretentious and fraudulent. I took this as an indication that I needed to use them more. The muscles were very tense, and if I pressed my knuckle into them, it was painful. I have since rehabilitated them with compression and contraction, making them much stronger, leaner, and painless.
I never had dimples or smile lines in the past as the first photo at the beginning of this chapter evinces. Genetic testing revealed that I do not have the genetic markers associated with dimples. But exercising the risorius and buccinator muscles has given me somewhat pronounced smile lines/dimples. This surprised me. It even surprised my mom. I was 35, and I was spending time with her for the first time in months when she said, “Oh my, you have dimples now. Is that from a specific Program Peace exercise?” My experience suggests to me that everyone can develop them. At first, your dimple beds (the pockets between the contracted risorius muscles and the jaw muscles) may be completely covered by the fatty tissue in your cheeks. Contract the risorius and then use your fingers to search for this pocket. It may be filled in with fat now, but as your smiling muscles grow, it will slowly come to form a depression—a dimple.
The most important smiling muscle is the zygomaticus major. It connects the corners of your mouth to your cheekbones. The muscle is likely to be feeble and feel uncomfortable when isolated at first. However, contracting it firmly will gradually create noticeable lumps of muscle under your cheekbones that appear when you smile. Many famous actors have well-developed zygomatic muscles, and in women, they tend to be much larger. Conditioning the zygomatic muscles will make your smile unambiguous and make your face leaner and friendlier.
Illustration 10.4: A. Each of the muscles involved in smiling is anchored at the corners of the mouth. The two zygomatic muscles stretch up to the cheekbone, the risorius extends laterally toward the side of the face, and the buccinator is the large muscle underneath the others; B. Zygomatic exercises will help strengthen the muscles centered around the cheekbone. C. & D. Risorius and buccinator exercises will increase the prominence and size of smile lines and/or dimples.
As you practice the exercises in this chapter, your entire cheek will become much leaner and more muscular, giving the impression of a long history of relaxed, confident smiling. People will see this and implicitly assume that you are a happy person who has been smiling healthfully all their life. When you exercise the smiling muscles, you may notice other facial muscles reaching fatigue before your smiling muscles due to their relative lack of exercise. This is most likely to be a problem with the heavily strained sneering muscles. Luckily, the issue is fairly simple to address.
In my twenties, a friend told me that I smile like the Grinch. It hurt to hear, but he was right. My sickening smile was perverted from the repetitive strain of muscles around my nose. These included the three pairs of levator labii muscles which run along the sides of the nose from the height of the eyes down to the lip. They work in tandem to lift the upper lip and reveal the canines.
As you know, revealing the upper teeth is a threat display in most primates. Chimps bare their top teeth in a grin when they are frightened, uncertain, or uncomfortable. It often means they are ready to fight. Interestingly, baring the teeth during a fight is a sign of uncertainly and fear. High-ranking chimps seldom show their top teeth6 while low-ranking animals frequently do it. All of this indicates to me that the muscles that lift the top lip are the smiling muscles most closely associated with stress and submission. Check the action of these muscles in the mirror. What do you think?
Illustration 10.5: A. Muscles involved in sneering; B. Chimpanzee sneering; C. Girl sneering.
Sneering is common in human infants. For example, all infants sneer in fear when they are momentarily left alone by their mothers (using the logic presented in Chapter 7, this suggests a link with grief). Scientists believe older humans learn to inhibit the sneering reflex because sneering is not accepted in polite society. Most adults only knowingly sneer to communicate disgust or disdain. Much more accepted is an unconscious partial sneer, bracing the sneering muscles just slightly. We see this in people who curl their lip for minutes at a time. By doing that, they subject their muscles to repetitive strain. Over time, that leaves the muscles in a state of partial contraction.
The use of the sneering muscles amounts to a fascinating psychological complex. When trigger points within the sneer change from latent to active, you become committed to a negative emotion because it is now advertised on your face. Once you know someone else has seen your sneering muscles become tense, it forces your hand. You implicitly decide you must either act scared or aggressive. The activation of latent trigger points within the sneering muscles is the incendiary event in many negative confrontations. Since using massage to obliterate the trigger points in my sneering and frowning muscles, I have been virtually free of heated reactions. I previously thought my anger was unjustly provoked by others, but now I realize I was allowing others to activate latent trigger points in my sneering muscles, and it was this that compelled me to react prematurely and discourteously.
If you can release the tension in your levator labii, it will make your resting face appear less guarded. Some people will not be able to tell whether you look unguarded because you are friendly or because you are angry. This is because dominant people often completely release the levator labii when provoked. Thus, when you let this muscle relax, you will either appear calm and angelic or calm and dangerous. Your other postures and actions will determine which. The first step in making your sneerless expression noncombative is becoming more aware of the tension in your sneering muscles, which you can do using the activity below.
When people see that your sneering muscle is relaxed, they will try to imitate this. Unless they have practiced it and massaged the muscles, they will likely not be able to do it comfortably for long. This is because once the sneer is relaxed, even a slight emotional aggravation can make this tense muscle snap back to full contraction reflexively. Thus, you may find that people flash sneers at you inadvertently. Just ignore this, keep your sneering muscles calm, and continue being kind.
Be particularly aware of the presence of the sneer in your smile. Strained sneering muscles cause us to smile when we are nervous—we use the smile to cover up the sneer. In fact, a strained sneer tarnishes our every smile. Our smile has become conflated with our sneer, and often, even we don’t know whether we are sneering or smiling (see the first picture of me above). The exercise below will help guide you to use the risorius and zygomatic muscles without using the levator labii to create a sneerless smile.
Illustration 10.6: A. Smile with heavy sneering; B. Using the fingertips to sense sneering contractions; C. Smile without sneering.
According to body language experts, smiling with the brow lowered is extremely dominant. There is solid research indicating that leaders and people judged by others to have high leadership aptitude are capable of smiling with a lowered brow.7 This combination of a frown and a smile has been called “the Bill Clinton effect.” Experiments find that people rate those who use it as particularly dominant and are more likely to vote for them for leadership positions.8 Most people have never actually tried it. It takes a lot of time and confidence to develop this socially. Or, you can just practice it by yourself for several minutes until it is intrepid.
“Buddha’s contemporaries described him as ‘ever-smiling’ and portrayals of Buddha almost always depict him with a smile on his face. But rather than the smile of a self-satisfied, materially-rich or celebrated man, Buddha’s smile comes from a deep equanimity from within.” — Mark K. Setton (1952)
Genuine smiling induces the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. That’s part of why the intensity of our smiles in childhood photographs predicts life satisfaction, marriage stability, and a longer lifespan.9 Studies have found that even faked or forced smiling can increase happiness and decrease depressive states.10 Those studies don’t distinguish between genuine, healthy smiles and forced, strained ones. Imagine how much more dramatic the results would be if they had! The lesson here is straightforward: smiling more and properly increases your standard of living.
I believe the best default facial posture is to have the entire face at rest except for a small smile involving only the zygomatic, risorius, and buccinator muscles. If you can direct this toward others, it will cause them to unconsciously imitate your smile.11 This will lift their mood and make them want to be around you. Since performing these exercises, I regularly notice strangers smiling at me—something that was unusual before. Every time this happens, I wonder why they smiled at me, and then I realize it was because I was smiling. It can become so effortless that you don’t realize you are doing it.
Fully contracting the muscles helps them grow but contracting them lightly and continuously builds tone and comfort. Do you sit in front of a computer during the day? Turn on your paced breathing app and smile. Just make sure that you do not subject the muscles to repetitive strain and don’t forget to massage your face after long sessions of smiling. Allow the muscles intermittent rests, especially once they reach fatigue. Spend time smiling as you lie down or fall asleep. A “resting smile” may sound like an oxymoron, but it shouldn’t.
- In monkeys, baring the teeth is a threat and subordination display, so the smile is intrinsically tied to the stress system.
- Our smiles have become tainted by repetitive strain, and the smiling muscles are stuck in partial contraction, full of trigger points, and painful. Our tight, braced smiles aren’t happy—they’re just submissive and tense.
- Contracting the smiling muscles completely while breathing diaphragmatically (and then compressing the muscles afterward) will reverse the bracing.
- Isolating and fully contracting the zygomatic, risorius, and buccinator muscles will improve your smile.
- Careful practice will enable you to remove the squint, eyebrow raise, and sneer from your smile, freeing it to be a purely positive expression.
- Practicing a smile while making eye contact with yourself in front of a mirror will help you smile while making eye contact with others.
- Practicing smiling while reading out loud will help you smile while speaking to others.
- As often as possible, practice wearing either the biggest or the tiniest smile that you can.
- Pennisi, E. (2000). The snarls and sneers that keep violence at bay. Science, 289(5479), 576–577.
- Fridlund, A. J. (1994). Human facial expression: An evolutionary view. Academic Press.
- Chevalier-Skolnikoff, S. (2006). Facial expression of emotion in nonhuman primates. In P. Ekman (Ed.), Darwin and facial expression: A century of research in review (pp. 11–90). Malor Books.
- LaFrance, M., & Hect, M. A. (1999). Option or obligation to smile: The effects of power and gender on facial expression. In P. Phillipot, R. S. Feldman, & E. J. Coars (Eds.), The social context of nonverbal behavior (pp. 45–70). Cambridge University Press.
- Messinger, D. S., Fogel, A., & Dickson, K. (2001). All smiles are positive, but some smiles are more positive than others. Developmental Psychology, 37(5), 642–653.
- Petersen, R. M., Dubuc, C., & Higham, J. P. (2018). Facial displays of dominance in non-human primates. In Senior C. (Ed.) The facial displays of leaders (pp. 123–143). Palgrave Macmillan.
- Senior, C. (2018). The facial displays of leadership: A systematic review of the literature. In C. Senior (Ed.), The facial displays of leaders (pp. 1–25). Palgrave MacMillan.
- Campbell, R., Benson, P. J., Wallace, S. B., Doesbergh, S., & Coleman, M. (1999). More about brows: How poses that change brow position affect perceptions of gender. Perception, 28(4), 489–504.
- Abel, E. & Kruger, M. (2010). Smile intensity in photographs predicts longevity. Psychological Science, 21, 542–544.
- Freitas-Magalhães, A., & Castro, E. (2009). Facial expression: The effect of the smile in the treatment of depression. Empirical study with Portuguese subjects. In A. Freitas-Magalhães (Ed.), Emotional expression: The brain and the face (pp. 127–140). University Fernando Pessoa Press.
- Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. C. (1992). Primitive emotional contagion. In M. S. Clark (Ed.), Emotional and social behavior (pp. 151–177). Sage Publications.