Science Says Your Smile Can Reveal More About Your True Feelings Than You Realize

by Julia Guerra

Does anyone else feel like a fraud whenever they casually add a “lol” to the end of a text, specifically when nothing you’re discussing is even all that funny? I mean, seriously, does anyone write "laugh out loud" and actually laugh anymore? According to new research, a similar concept can be applied to smiling: Just as “lol” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ROFL, smiling doesn’t always mean you're happy. Look, don’t get me wrong: This idea that putting a smile on your face can make the world a better place is romantic and lovely and all that jazz, but let the record show that just because someone forces a frown upside down, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily seeing their own world through rose-tinted glasses. In fact, based on this new research, a lot of the time, the act of smiling could very well be just a human strategy to, as they say, grin and bear it.

Of course, growing up, you're taught to say what you mean and mean what you say — so why aren’t the same rules applied to facial expressions? I, for one, am by no means good at concealing my true feelings. If I’m happy, you’ll know it, and if I’m not, believe me, you’ll know that, too. Still, there have definitely been times when I’ve caught myself wriggling my lips into a "U" shape if not for anything more than to make a lull in conversation feel less awkward. So, if smiling doesn’t really mean you’re happy, what does smiling reveal about your true feelings? You know, the ones you actually feel, but aren’t expressing for one reason or another.

According to a recent study performed by body language expert Dr. Harry Witchel, of Brighton and Sussex Medical School, smiling is more or less something you and I do out of habit, or even, at times, assumed obligation, more often than it is a legitimate expression of happiness — which is pretty sad, IMO, but when Witchel breaks down the science of it all, it actually makes a whole lot of sense.

To figure out whether or not smiling really means you’re happy, Witchel enlisted 44 participants between the ages of 18 and 35 to complete a nine-question geography quiz. To be fair, the test wasn't exactly created to be fun; According to ScienceDaily, Witchel set it up so that each question on the quiz would be so difficult, participants would likely answer most, if not all, incorrectly. Overall, the experiment was comprised of three parts: First, the participants completed the quiz through a computer. Next, they were asked to rate their experience with the quiz based on how they felt about it (bored, frustrated, etc.). All the while, the participants' facial expressions were being monitored through the screen of the computer, which allowed Witchel to determine whether or not their smiles throughout the experiment were genuine, fake, or kind of dissociated from emotion in general.

The results, which have been published in The Journal of the ACM, showed that, of those who donned a smile at different points throughout the study, smiling proved to be more of a social response, and less of a sign of enjoyment, or even irony, for that matter. Dr. Witchel said in a statement,

According to some researchers, a genuine smile reflects the inner state of cheerfulness or amusement. However, Behavioural Ecology Theory suggests that all smiles are tools used in social interactions; that theory claims that cheerfulness is neither necessary nor sufficient for smiling.

What makes Witchel’s findings all the more interesting is that, according to his results, the participants didn’t smile when they had to rack their brains for an answer to the questions they were being asked. Instead, they smiled once the computer screen yielded a result — wrong, or right, but apparently, the participants were most likely to smile whenever they answered a question incorrectly. It’s kind of like when you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone face-to-face, and you screw up whatever it is you were trying to get across — stumbling on your words or messing up the butt of a joke — and you giggle to make your mistake feel less awkward. You don’t have to be bursting with happiness to smile; sometimes the gesture just comes in handy when you need a security blanket to fall back on.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking finding. As doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, says, there’s no evidence to suggest that just because you’re smiling, all is well and you’re happy as a clam. “The emotion attached with the behavior of smiling is subjective to the individual engaging in the behavior of smiling,” Forshee tells Elite Daily over email. In fact, she adds, there are several different kinds of smiles you can express, all of which pertain to a different emotion, such as sarcasm, nervousness, and embarrassment. I don’t know about you, but none of those sound particularly perky to me.

But your smile isn't just a potential reflection of how you’re feeling; Forshee goes on to suggest that, if you're feeling the need to smile in a social setting, it could have something to do with the facial expressions of the people you’re surrounded by. In this case, she tells Elite Daily, smiling becomes what she refers to as an “adaptive function.” In other words, if you’re peeved because a presentation at work didn’t go the way you’d planned, but your work wife is all smiles because her presentation went flawlessly, you might feel it’s best to put your own emotions on the back-burner and, instead, feed off of her positive energy when she tells her story at happy hour.

Of course, you should never feel like you have to smile when you aren't feeling your best. It's totally OK to frown, furrow your brow, or just let your facial features relax and do their own thing. Just keep in mind, smiling doesn't always mean you're happy, and it doesn't always mean the people you're talking to are feeling particularly upbeat, either. Take everything at face value, and let the smile speak for itself.