Baring the teeth in monkeys is a threat display, so the smile is intrinsically tied to the stress system. Due to their tie with stress, our smiles have become tainted by repetitive strain, and the smiling muscles are largely dormant and painful. When this is the case smiling is a submissive gesture. Smiling heavily while breathing diaphragmatically and then compressing the smiling muscles will reverse this. Fully contracting the zygomatic and risorious/buccinator muscles, and practicing smiles using only these muscles will improve your smile. Remove the squint, eyebrow raise, and sneer from your smile. Develop the ability to smile comfortably while speaking and making eye contact. As often as possible practice wearing either the biggest or the tiniest smile that you can.
Chapter 10: Perfecting Your Smile
The Origins of the Smile
The smile has a convoluted but fascinating origin. After reading this chapter you will understand the nuances and the implications for your own smile. In most mammals drawing back the lips to reveal the teeth is used as a warning display. It is a flash of the fangs involved in the snarl that is made in preparation for biting. Baring the teeth keeps the mammal from biting into its own lips. In primates the signal is more complicated.
In social groups of monkeys and apes it communicates that the displaying animal feels threatened. It 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 (Fridlund, 1994). The flash of the teeth, especially teeth held together, is used to appease dominant group members, exclaiming, “I have been startled or stressed, and I am willing to submit.” This usually results in the dominant animal leaving them alone. 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 further retracted horizontally and vertically baring the teeth. As anger increases the stare widens, the ears are brought forward, and the lips are contracted obscuring the teeth. Fear is associated with displaying the teeth, and dominance is associated with concealing them. In many monkey species if a dominant male chases a subordinate male and the subordinate grins (a fear expression), the dominant male will stop chasing and leave. If the dominant male were to grin, the subordinate will approach him and embrace him. Thus the precise function of the signal is context bound.
In apes, again, things are different. The baring of teeth in apes can serve several purposes depending on context, and other expressive patterns present. Like the human smile it can function in submission, appeasement or affection (Chevalier-Skolnikoff, 2006). In apes the grin is often flashed between equals. Chimpanzees can be seen grinning at each other before they embrace. Apes also use a silent bared-teeth face associated with assurance and affiliation, and a relaxed open-mouth face baring the bottom teeth that is associated with play. Thus the monkey grin is an emblematic display communicating either surprise or insecurity, which we and other apes have generalized towards compliance, affiliation, and play. Because it has its origins in fear and appeasement the smile is wired up with the sympathetic system. This is unfortunate because it means that fun and affection are intrinsically tied to stress. In this chapter you will learn how to dissociate this negativity from your smile.
A. Baboon baring the teeth; B. Chimpanzee making a threat display; Chimpanzee with a friendly grin.
Why Our Smiles are Tainted
I believe that people who have paired their smiling with diaphragmatic breathing over the course of their life have the best smiles. Think of models or cheerleaders. These are people that have been expected to keep an unflinching smile on their face for minutes or hours at a time. At first this probably felt uncomfortable for them, and led to defensive breathing. However, since smiling is their job, they have no choice but to continue to breathe. With time it becomes easy for them and they can breathe calmly and normally even while grinning widely. Most people cannot do this, simply because they have never had to smile for long periods. A grin speeds up the heartrate, makes breathing shallow, and activates trigger points in the face. Most of the social smiling we take part in is nervous and compulsory. Because we routinely pair smiling with distressed breathing we have badly strained our smiling muscles and crippled our most endearing expression.
Socially dominant individuals are less likely to smile and more likely to frown than others. It is common that the boss at work does not smile as much as the employees. Individuals with a high social status are permitted to display their negative emotions freely, and are not expected to give appeasement displays. Low dominance individuals are expected to stifle negative and competitive feelings and actively display signs of affiliation (LaFrance & Hect, 1999). Studies have found that low-ranking children smile more when approaching high-ranking children than high rankers do when approaching low-rankers. In the United States smiling is commonly associated with approval seeking, low social status in adults, and low peer “toughness” ratings in children. Because of this, smiling is often taken for weakness.
A number of studies have shown that women prefer men that don’t smile, and that in mixed martial arts the fighter that smiles less during the weigh in is more likely to win. However, these studies are looking at sheepish smiles and are not controlling for the health of the smile. A nonsheepish smile is highly attractive and would predict victory in a fight. Smiling is weakness only if the smiling muscles are strained, and if smiling automatically recruits distressed breathing. Diaphragmatic smile retraining along with compression of the smiling muscles will make it so that your smile does not drain you, but rather is effortless and empowering.
A. My smile in 2010 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 the nose rather than on the cheek bones. B. My smile in 2016 was greatly improved by the methods in this chapter.
When I was a very young child my grandmother would ask my mother: “what is wrong with that child’s smile?” Something caused me to pair smiling with shallow breathing early on. My smile always appeared puny, melancholy, and forced. Similarly different chimps from the same group will demonstrate “gingival” smiles, where they show all of their gums, and others will smile feebly. In my twenties I decided that I should spend time smiling really intensely to build up my smiling muscles. I would go on long walks, or watch movies smiling widely the whole time. I did it while squinting and breathing shallowly, but even so, within a few weeks I achieved noticeable results. After around 10 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 bigger. I tried, and they told me: “No, smile up into your cheek bones.” I couldn’t and 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) didn’t grow. This section where the zygomatic muscle attaches to the zygoma didn’t respond to the exercise because it was extremely tense, and painful. After compressing this area using Facial Compression Exercise 8 from the last chapter, I am now able to smile up into my cheekbones. Combine the compression and percussion of your zygomatic muscles from Chapter 9 with 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 the course of a few weeks.
Isolate the Smile
One of the best things about carrying a smile for 2 minutes or more while breathing diaphragmatically is that all the muscles that are normally part of your smile start to relax. Within a minute or two you can feel muscles all around the face, head and neck ease up. This isolates your smile from the tense facial contortions that normally accompany it. Usually around 15 muscles are involved in a smile. When you stop smiling many of these muscles remain tense because latent trigger points (especially in the sneering muscles) have become active. This is part of the reason that smiling leads many people to lose their composure quickly, and it is one of the reasons that many people are reluctant to smile.
It is imperative to relax all of the muscles in the face when you practice diaphragmatic smiling. At first your isolated smile will look and feel uncomfortable. You might feel like a grinning idiot. It may also feel sarcastic or counterfeit. However, with time this will become your preferred way of smiling. The longer you breathe calmly while holding this isolated smile, the more natural and affable it will become.
French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne was conducting research on the physiology of facial expressions in the mid-19th century. He identified two kinds of smiles, 1) a fake smile, also called a Pan Am smile, named for the polite expression worn by the former airline’s stewardesses, and 2) an authentic, “Duchenne” smile that uses both the zygomatic muscle and the orbicularis oculi muscle which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes. Studies have shown that the Duchenne smile, that includes the eyes, is more closely associated with positive emotion (Messinger, 2001). Because of this most scientists assume that the happiest smiles involve heavy squinting. I disagree.
In my experience emotionally unhealthy people often squint the most when they smile, and emotionally healthy people squint the least. I believe that squinting smiles have been found to be more authentic because of people’s bad habits, and that removing the squint methodically will not make the smile any less authentic. Work on smiling without squinting, without raising the eyebrows, and without any contraction anywhere but in the smiling muscles. You will develop the ability to smile big, all the way up the side of your cheek, without squinting at all. If you were raised in an ideal, utopian environment with no threats, that is how you would smile. It may look like the smile of a deranged clown right now, but it will become splendid once you become accustomed to doing it while breathing diaphragmatically. Later, in a social environment, feel free to squint lightly.
A. A smile with heavy squinting; B. Using the fingertips to sense squinting contractions; C. A smile without squinting.
Earlier I described my efforts at being 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 she reciprocated the same smile. In 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 retrieve this smile, whenever I want, ever since.
I don’t have any kids of my own, so I continued to practice this smile with my cat. Try it with a stuffed animal, a pet, or even a friend that you have recruited to help you. After practicing in these safe situations, you can start to generalize this ability to situations that feel less safe, such as a public place or even a meeting. This is another example of this book asking you to “fake it until you make it.” If you don’t create concocted social environments where you feel comfortable smiling carefree, you will never do it. Like Schopenhauer I used to be cynical about the fact that life, or other people, were not creating these optimal scenarios for me. It is our responsibility to create them for ourselves and to share them with others.
Creating Dimples and Smile Lines: Contracting the Risorious and Buccinator
It is important to fully incorporate the risorious and buccinator muscles into your smile. The risourious lie in your cheeks, an inch below your cheek bone, and anchor on the corner of your mouth on one side and into the soft tissue of your cheek on the other. They pull your smile horizontally. The buccinator muscles pull back the angle of the mouth aiding in the risorious smile as well as in whistling, puckering and chewing. I previously used my risorious and buccinator muscles very little in my smile. When I fully contracted them they made my smile look fraudulent and rude. 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 percussion, making them much stronger, leaner and painless.
I never had dimples or smile lines in the past as the photo at the beginning of this chapter evinces. In fact, genetic testing revealed that I do not have the genetic markers that are associated with dimples. But exercising and compressing the related muscles have given me somewhat pronounced smile lines/dimples. My experience suggests to me that everyone can have these. At first your dimple beds may be completely covered by the fatty tissue of your cheeks. You can feel this pocket as the space between the contracted risorious muscle and the masseter. Contract the risorious 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 form a depression- a dimple. This dimple will appear very close to the corner of the mouth at first. As your cheeks continue to grow stronger and leaner, the dimples will migrate laterally (approaching the masseter) and will end up more than a full inch from the corner of the mouth.
Smiling vigorously and compressing the smiling muscles will increase their strength, size and range of motion. Your entire cheek area will become much leaner and more muscular. People will see this and implicitly assume that you are a happy person who has been smiling healthfully all of their life. When you exercise the smiling muscles you may notice that other facial muscles reach fatigue before the smiling muscles. This is most likely to be the case with the heavily strained sneering muscles and this is a problem.
A. Muscles of the smile; B. Loss of fat and gain of muscle in the cheek that accompanies zygomatic exercises; C. Increase in the size of dimples that accompanies risorious exercises.
Refrain from Sneering
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. The “levator labii superioris alaeque nasi” muscles run down the sides of the nose from the height of the eyes, down to the lip. These muscles often work in tandem with the levator labii superioris and the levator anguli oris, to lift the upper lip, revealing the canines.
Revealing just the upper teeth is a modified grin that is a threat display in many primates. Chimps bare their top teeth in a grin when they are frightened, uncertain, or uncomfortable. Top teeth bared means that chimps are ready to fight. But baring the teeth during a fight is a sign of uncertainly and fear. High-ranking chimps seldom show their top teeth.
A. Muscles involved in sneering; B. Chimpanzee sneering; C. Girl sneering.
All human infants sneer in fear when they are momentarily left alone by their mother. Scientists believe that humans learn to inhibit the reflex because sneering is not used in polite society. Most adults only use a sneer to communicate disgust, or distain (feigned or real). Even though we rarely contract the sneering muscles fully, we frequently brace them lightly with the mouth closed. Why do we subject our sneering muscles to repetitive strain? Is it because we are always faintly sneering at each other? Is it because we are always trying not to sneer at each other? Is it because we are trying to keep an inadvertent sneer from surfacing? I don’t know. I do know that if you can release the tension, it will make you look less guarded. Some people will not be able to tell whether you appear unguarded because you are friendly, or because you are angry. This is because dominant people often completely release the levator labii when they have been 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.
When trigger points in the face change from latent to active lasting negative emotions surface. In social situations, activation of trigger points in the procerus (frown) or the levator labii (sneer) commit you to a negative emotion because it is now advertised on your face. Once you know that someone else has seen your sneering muscles become tense, it forces your hand. You implicitly decide that you must either act scared or aggressive. Latent trigger points becoming active is likely the incendiary event in most negative confrontations. Now that I have used compression to obliterate the trigger points in my sneering and frowning muscles, I have been virtually free of heated reactions. I used to think that my anger was unjustly provoked by others, but it was simply that I was allowing others to activate the latent trigger points in my face.
When people see that your sneering muscle is relaxed, they will try to imitate this. Unless they have practiced it and compressed the muscles, they will likely not be able to do this 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 without any conscious deliberation. You may find that people flash sneers at you inadvertently. Just ignore this, keep your sneering muscles calm, and keep being kind.
Be particularly aware of the presence of the sneer in your smile. Nervous smiling is often just a defense mechanism that attempts to cover up a sneer. Our smile has become conflated with our sneer and often even we don’t know whether we are sneering or smiling. See the picture of me above. The exercise below will help guide you to use the risorious and zygomatic muscles, without using the levator labii, to create a sneerless smile.
A. Smile with heavy sneering; B. Using the fingertips to sense sneering contractions; C. Smile without sneering.
We omit the joy signal because we are afraid that it will be interpreted by others as naïve, or false, or psychopathic. We all remember being afraid to smile around our parents, grade school teachers, or bullies thinking that they might misinterpret it as flippant or impudent. When I first started to smile large to a breath metronome I felt like a threatening demon, or a sarcastic jester. Now I just feel happy.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Smiling induces the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. This may be part of the reason why smile intensity in early photographs predicts marriage stability and longer lifespan (Abel & Kruger, 2010). Studies have shown that even faked or forced smiling can increase happiness and decrease depressive states (Freitas-Magalhães & Castro, 2009). If these studies would have looked at smiles made effortless through diaphragmatic breathing, I think that the findings would have been much more significant. Smiling more and smiling properly will increase your quality of life. The best default facial posture is to have the entire face at total rest with a small smile that involves only the zygomatic, risorious and buccinator muscles. If you can direct it toward others in a sincere way, this smile will cause others to unconsciously imitate your smile (Hatfield et al., 1992). This will lift their mood, make them find you more attractive, and make them want to be around you. Since performing these exercises strangers will smile at me; I will wonder why and then realize it is because I was smiling. It becomes so effortless that you forget that you are doing it.
Fully contracting the muscles helps them grow, but contracting them lightly and continuously builds tone and comfort. Sitting alone 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 smiling muscles to repetitive strain. Allow them intermittent rests, especially once they reach fatigue. Spend time smiling as you lie down or fall asleep. A resting smile may sound but it like an oxymoron but it shouldn’t.
Chapter 10: Bullet Points
- Baring the teeth in monkeys is a threat display, so the smile is intrinsically tied to the stress system.
- Our smiles have become tainted by repetitive strain, and the smiling muscles are largely dormant and painful. When this is the case smiling is a submissive gesture.
- Smiling heavily while breathing diaphragmatically and then compressing the smiling muscles will reverse this.
- Fully contracting the zygomatic and risorious/buccinator muscles, and practicing smiles using only these muscles will improve your smile.
- Remove the squint, eyebrow raise, and sneer from your smile.
- Develop the ability to smile comfortably while speaking and making eye contact.
- As often as possible practice wearing either the biggest or the tiniest smile that you can.