By Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner
One of the most powerful ways to communicate is through a smile, which is why the smile has been studied and discussed for centuries, and across many contexts.
Guillaume Duchenne (1806-1875), for example, was a French neurologist most noted for his research which made a distinction between a sincere smile (referred to as the Duchenne smile), involving contractions of the muscles surrounding both the mouth and the eyes; versus a more intentional or polite smile, involving movement of the mouth only. The former is a smile of enjoyment, the latter a smile of obligation. The sincere smile is more welcoming, more quickly recognized, and makes people feel more of a connection with the smiler. But beyond improving our social life, a genuine smile can do much more.
For one, it can make us feel good. Both Charles Darwin and William James believed that our outward facial expressions can alter or intensify our inward emotions. In other words, the act of smiling can actually improve our mood, and a sustained positive mood over time can even help us to live longer, as was found in a study of rural Italians, ages 90-101 years of age. Their longevity, despite the natural physical decline that increases among this age group, was linked to their confidence in overcoming adversity with a positive attitude. Examples of the participants’ comments included: “I am always thinking of the best. There is always a solution in life”; “Life is what it is and must be faced…always!”; “I am always ready for changes. I think changes bring life and give chances to grow.”
Some smiles leave us curious, as they seem to hold a secret. One famous smile that has been studied for over 500 years, is the mysteriously intriguing smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Harvard scientists have investigated why, when looking at the painting, we sometimes see a distinct smile and sometimes not. Leonardo combined painstaking skill and meticulous detail when casting shadows in his artwork. It turns out that Mona Lisa’s smile looks more defined when observing it through our peripheral vision, which has fewer photoreceptors, and is thus more adept at seeing shadows, like the one cast by the subject’s cheekbones. On the other hand, we perceive more ambiguity in her smile when looking at it straight on using our foveal vision (the area at the back of the retina which contains the highest number of light receptors). Other researchers, who have ever so subtly manipulated the corners of the Mona Lisa’s mouth found that observers rate her original smile as a happier expression than any of the other possible variations.
But what makes Mona Lisa’s smile so magnetic, so beautiful? Sophia Loren devoted an entire page to this smile in a beauty book she wrote in the ’80s. She went to the Louvre as there was something drawing her to study this da Vinci masterpiece in person. The face in the painting was not the traditional conception of beauty, Sophia noted. She had facial features that included cheeks that were “slightly too full”, a mouth “slightly too thin” and a nose that Mona Lisa herself might have “wished were shorter”. Yet her compelling gaze became an inspiration for the iconic Italian actress. The attraction, Ms. Loren concluded, came from that Mona Lisa smile—which was, in essence, a smile of tranquility. Loren describes it as a smile of a woman who owns the most precious knowledge in the world—“the knowledge of self”. And after all, knowing exactly who you are, and accepting yourself “as is” are the two most powerful markers of attraction one can have. And this, perhaps, could be the most important function of all, of a simple smile.
Emanuela Liaci, Andreas Fischer, Markus Heinrichs5, Ludger Tebartz van Els &
Jürgen Kornmeier (2017) Mona Lisa is always happy—and only sometimes sad. Scientific Reports.
Kennon M. Sheldon, Mike Corcoran, and Melanie Sheldon (2021) Duchenne Smiles as Honest Signals of Chronic Positive Mood. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol 16(3) 654-666.
Loren, Sophia (1984) Women & Beauty. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Lucy Johnston, Lynden Miles and C. Neil Macrae (2010) Why are you smiling at me? Social functions of enjoyment and non-enjoyment smiles British Journal of Social Psychology v49, 107–127
The Harvard Gazette: Ways of Seeing https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/11/ways-of-seeing/ Looking at art with neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone
Scelzo, A., Di Somma, S., Antonini, P.,Montross, L.P., Schark, N., Brenner, D., & Jeste, D.V. (2018) Mixed-methods quantitative-qualitative study of 29 nonagenarians and centenarians in rural Southern Italy:focus on positive psychological traits. International Psychogeriatrics, v 30(1), 31-38.