Getting to the Bottom of a Fake Smile

What if we never fake-smiled?

The thought came to me while I was walking up the stairs at work, having just “smiled” and greeted the receptionist.

It’s such a normal and automatic thing that you may never think about it; but how many times do we shoot a smile at someone without meaning it at all?

For me, it’s pretty often.

What is a fake smile?

While we may not stop to consider it much, I suspect most of us can spot a fake smile when we see one. This isn’t that surprising since there is a real, physical difference between a genuine “Duchenne” smile and its imposter. A real smile uses the facial muscle orbicularis oculi (catchy, I know) which contracts and forms wrinkles on the outer edge of your eyes (aka crow’s feet). Basically, your eyes close some as your cheeks move upwards. You may have heard the phrase “smile with your eyes”—turns out it’s a real thing (and not one you can force)!

Slow down during the day, spend time alone in the classroom of silence, and practice mindful awareness of the present moment as much as you can.

A fake smile, on the other hand, doesn’t use the OO muscle. Instead, our face uses the risorius muscle—one muscle in each cheek (and sounds like a dinosaur)—to pull our lips into the right shape, but the eye muscles don’t contract.

Real smiles happen naturally and are prompted by positive thoughts and feelings. Fake smiles require a conscious effort. A fake smile, therefore, allows for a disconnect between what is going on in us interiorly and what we express exteriorly.

Why do people fake-smile?

Smiling is seen as a social survival strategy. Studies done with various animal species have determined that, once seen as a sign of aggression, smiling is an indicator of fear, and ultimately “non-hostility.”

So basically we smile to indicate we come in peace . . . “Please like me; don’t hurt me.” That is why you smile at your coworker in the hall, even if you don’t particularly care for them or feel happy. That is why you smile at the barista taking your coffee order, even if you’re tired and entirely under-caffeinated. That is why you smile at the joke you didn’t find particularly funny, or why you smile even though you’re feeling a myriad of emotions—none of which make you want to grin.

We fake-smile to avoid conflict, fit in, and to be perceived positively. Not great reasons to do something, wouldn’t you say?

Why fake smiles aren’t healthy

Studies that examined photos of people with real or artificial smiles in their college yearbook photos found that those individuals with real smiles in their portraits married earlier, were more satisfied with their lives, and reported having better relationships than those whose smiles weren’t as genuine.

Ditch the fake smile and replace it with the real thing.

Because genuine smiles result from positive thoughts and emotions, those who carry them tend to have rosier outlooks on life than those who don’t. Having a sunny disposition leads us to see new connections, better integrate information, and solve problems in unique ways. Those who are generally more positive tend to be more engaged socially and intellectually throughout their lives.

Fake smiles aren’t a true expression of positivity—they are a poor imitation of a happier version of ourselves. This is why it’s important to ditch the falsie and replace it with the real thing.

How to replace your fake smile

1. Get in touch with your true feelings

It’s preferable to not smile than it is to fake a smile. Why? Because it’s honest and demonstrates that a person is self-aware. Try to get in the habit of allowing your facial expressions to reveal what you are feeling, and not what you think you “should” feel in a given moment. This requires understanding what you are actually feeling, so make an effort to pay attention to your emotional life. This may mean slowing down during the day, spending time alone in the classroom of silence, and practicing mindful awareness of the present moment as much as you can.

2. Embrace your “normal” face

This may come as news, but you don’t actually have to smile when you don’t feel like it. You may be in the habit now of “smiling” every time someone walks by you or you bid someone good afternoon, regardless of whether you mean it or not. Try to be intentional about how you greet others. Practice awareness of the present moment: when the opportunity arises to smile and it doesn’t come naturally, opt for a nod or wave instead. You can kindly say “good morning,” or ask someone how they’re doing, even if a genuine smile doesn’t make an appearance. Your resting face isn’t a bad or wrong thing—as long as you behave respectfully toward others, a smile isn’t always necessary.

3. Give your smile meaning

Ultimately, a polite or cordial smile can offer encouragement and kindness—even if we have to make a little effort. But the real thing is even better.

Authentic happiness is found in giving ourselves to others.

If you reserve your smile for the moments when you truly mean it, suddenly your smile becomes so much more than an empty gesture. Instead, your smile can be a gift, an act of love. Even if you aren’t “feeling” it, a natural smile can happen if you decide to have a joyful disposition and do your best to leave every person a little better than how you found them. Being genuinely interested in how the person is, giving a true compliment, doing your best to be warm . . . if this becomes your mission throughout the day, you may find your natural smile making an appearance much more often. After all, it is in giving ourselves away that authentic happiness is found.

Someone recently told me that I needed to stop thinking about myself so much. As harsh as this advice may sound, I think they were right—and that taking to heart what they said is actually the recipe for a life that is more joyful, peaceful, and meaningful.

If we start thinking about how we can be a gift to others instead of clinging to the “what’s in it for me” mentality, I think we’ll find our fake smiles turning into real ones much more often.

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