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The past few days I have been on the hunt for a new dentist (oh, the joys of moving to a new state), and it has suddenly become apparent to me the lengths people go through to obtain that perfect, sparkling white smile. Teeth whitening, cosmetic dentistry, Invisalign- endless procedures exist just to improve the appearance of your smile. So why is a smile so important, anyway? What does a smile actually mean?

Image: The World Smiley FoundationLet’s talk about the smiley face. Designed by Harvey Ball in 1963, this famed icon took off as a feelgood fad in the post-Vietnam 1970s, appearing alongside the phrase “Have a nice day” on t-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, etc. It encapsulated the American spirit of friendship, childlike contentment, and peace. To this day it remains the most common symbol of happiness. We can therefore infer that a smile is synonymous with happiness, right? Well…

Do you smile when you’re alone? Probably not, unless you’re a crazed psychopath or something. That is because feelings of happiness are not automatically linked with smiling. Smiling is actually at the mercy of our conscious, voluntary control. Most people do not smile unless there is someone around to see it. Additionally, think about all the times you’ve faked a smile when you were not actually happy. Smiles are not an indication of happiness, but actually a culturally-conditioned status symbol. People (Americans anyway) flash their pearly whites as a way to be positively perceived by others, because “happy” people are generally friendly, well-liked, and pleasant to be around. When someone goes into a job interview or first date, they make an effort to smile- even if they are not experiencing feelings of bliss. Smiles are commonly referred to as one’s “secret weapon” or best first impression, often feigned out of politeness, or in an effort to make one’s self appear happy to others.

While smiling is mostly a voluntary effort, one batch of muscles related to smiling is actually beyond our control- but it does not have to do with the mouth or lips. Theorbicularis oculi surrounds the eyes and is responsible for raising your cheek up to pinch the lower eyelid when you are smiling out of genuine, heartfelt happiness- this muscle is what gives you that gleam in you eye when you are truly happy. In a way, genuine bliss is not indicated by a smile of the mouth, but a smile of the eye, since only about 5% of the population can actually control these muscles. This is the kind of smile infants activate when their mothers approach, and studies have shown that when people see this kind of smile on others, they feel calmer, more relaxed, and even happier. This is the kind of smile that indicates happiness, not the upward turn from the corners of the mouth. Eyes truly are the window to the soul.

While smiling is not a direct indication of happiness, studies have revealed that smiling can actually improve the happiness of those around you. Likewise, other studies show that our emotions are reinforced, sometimes even driven, by our facial expressions- in other words, a smile can actually make the person who dons it happier. I think we can all agree that smiling- genuinely or otherwise- can make the world a truly happier place. Maybe even a place full of heartfelt eye smiles.

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