#079 Can You Live 7 Years Longer by Smiling?

February 22nd, 2015 by

Can You Live 7 Years Longer by Smiling?

Would you believe me if I told you that researchers can predict exactly how long you will live based entirely on a photograph of you?  Sounds like fortune telling, right?  Interestingly, science backs up this claim and in this article we will discuss how smiling can help you to feel better today and extend your life.

Baseball Cards, Smiling, and Longevity Study

In 2009, researchers Ernest L. Abel and Michael L. Kruger from Wayne State University had an interesting idea for a study.  Could whether a professional baseball player happened to smile on their baseball card photograph in 1952 predict how long they would live?

To test this interesting question, Abel and Kruger analyzed all 230 baseball cards from 1952 where the athlete was looking at the camera.  Five “judges” were then selected to analyze each baseball player’s smile.  Each baseball card was rated based on 3 categories. No smile, partial smile, or a full smile (Duchenne smile).

In order to keep the study fair, judges were not told what this study was about.  All they knew was that they had to rate the smile of each baseball player.

Because these were all Major League Baseball players, much of their medical history like age, height, weight, career length, marital and education status was all public knowledge.  Interestingly, while the number of years they played professional baseball and if they attended college improved longevity, the most important factor was whether or not they smiled on their 1952 baseball card.

This simple act of smiling on their 1952 baseball card determined their longevity.  Here are the results:

1. No Smile: Average lifespan of 72.9 years

2. Partial Smile: Average lifespan of 75.0 years

3. Full Smile (Duchenne Smile): Average lifespan of 79.9 years

As you can see, the baseball players with a full smile or a Duchenne smile lived 7 years longer than those baseball players who refused to smile on their 1952 baseball card photo.

Can we believe the results of this baseball card study?

Certainly, it would be very easy to dismiss the results of this study as a random statistical finding.  However, the results of this study are right in line with other studies on smiling.

For example, studies have shown that whether or not you are smiling on your childhood photos determines your likelihood of having a successful marriage.  In other words, researchers concluded that if you didn’t like to smile on your childhood photographs that you were more likely to be divorced.

Other studies have shown that whether or not you are smiling on your senior yearbook photo determines marital satisfaction as well.  In addition to happiness, some researchers have concluded that smiling can make you appear more attractive and intelligent.

These are just a few of the many studies that have all shown the same thing.  Smiling in a photograph seems to predict happiness and longevity.

How do explain the results of smiling?

By this point in the article you are probably wondering, how can just the simple act of choosing whether or not to smile in a photo determine your health, happiness, and longevity?  I too, wondered the same thing.

Many scientists now believe that the simple act of smiling provides a window to our mental and emotional health.  If we are happy and healthy then we are much more likely to smile.

Can you fake a smile?

Certainly, in the baseball card study, researchers did not know whether the photographer asked the baseball players to smile or not in 1952 as this could have impacted the results.  While this may have determined whether baseball players didn’t smile or gave a partial smile it likely did not affect the results of a full smile or a Duchenne smile.

To be scored as a full smile or a Duchenne smile in this baseball card study, baseball players had to raise the corners of their mouth (contraction of the zygomatic major muscles) and show crow’s-feet wrinkles around the eyes (contraction of the orbicularous oculi muscles).  While it is certainly possible to learn how to move all of these muscles simultaneously and fake a genuine smile, for 99% of us we simply cannot fake a real smile.

Thus, if baseball players showed a Duchenne smile then we can be pretty sure that they were at least feeling happy inside at the time of their 1952 baseball card photo.

Thin Slicing

While this may seem complex to analyze whether or not someone is genuinely smiling, your subconscious brain is able to instantly make this determination of a real versus a fake smile without you even realizing it.  Indeed, studies show that your brain can make this determination within 180-430 milliseconds.

Being able to quickly “sum someone up” in a split second is also known as “Thin Slicing.”  This ability is something that has allowed the human race the ability to quickly sense danger or friendship since the dawn of time.  By smiling we send others a strong signal or “first impression” that we are happy and emotionally stable inside–someone who is trustworthy, open to friendship, and cooperation.

We naturally gravitate to and prefer to be around people that smile.  We go out of our way to help people that genuinely smile toward us.


I Didn’t Smile in My Senior Yearbook Photo

Did you smile in your high school yearbook photo?  If this thought has crossed your mind then you are not alone.  I also wondered the exact same thing.

As I am writing this article I had to open up my old senior year high school yearbook for the first time since I graduated from high school.  It was covered in dust but I found it in our basement.  I had to find out if I smiled in my senior yearbook photo.

Unfortunately, I did not smile.  In 1985 I was “too cool” to smile.  As you can see from this photo, I was not about to smile.

High school was certainly a challenging time for me and I wasn’t always happy inside.  I always felt woefully inadequate and wondered what others thought of me in high school.  This was readily apparent from this photograph.

Perhaps this is why I have not yet attended a high school reunion.  This year will be my 30 year high school reunion and I am committed to going if I am in town.

Based on this high school photo of me, researchers would predict that I would get divorced, live an unhealthy life, and die young.  Fortunately, I started smiling in all of my photographs in college.  It was in college when I finally became emotionally mature enough to be happy inside.  Perhaps this is why Jane and I are still happily married after 22 years.

Fake It Until You Make It

What should you do if you don’t feel like smiling?  The old adage, fake it until you make it may just be true in this case.

Could faking a smile, until you really feel like smiling, actually make you happier and allow you to live longer?  Would you believe it if I told you that there was actually good science to support this argument?

Indeed, there have been a number of studies that have shown that even forcing a fake smile can make us feel happy.  In probably one of the most interesting studies on this subject, researchers taped up the faces of 88 college students forcing them to smile.

Even with their cheeks taped up in a fake smile, these college kids felt 85% happier.  While I certainly do not recommend that you walk around with your cheeks taped up in a smile all day to keep you happy, there is an important lesson to be learned here.

When we smile, forced or not, neurological signals are sent to our brain stimulating the “happiness centers” of our brains.  Thus, when it comes to smiling, we really can fake it until we make it.

Take Home Message

The take home message of this study is that smiling can allow us to feel better today and just may allow us to live an extra 7 years of life.  Don’t just start smiling in your photographs to live longer but also learn to smile at everyone you see.

My challenge to you is really quite simple.  Smile at everyone you see today.  If you can make it a habit then you just might be happier and live longer!

Did you happen to smile in your high school yearbook photo???