What’s In a Smile?
For decades, psychology and its researchers have focused on the negative side of humanity — the things that bring dysfunction into our lives. Depression, sadness, anxiety, you name it. More recently, psychologists have also begun to better understand the value of positive emotions too. This understanding has resulted in a new field of research called “positive psychology” or “happiness research.”
So how do we recognize a positive emotion? Or put more simply, “What’s in a smile?”
A new paper just published by Disa Sauter (2010) helps us answer this question.
Happiness is In Your Smile
Psychological research into happiness has, for the most part, focused on facial expressions. It’s no wonder: most of our communication — both verbal and nonverbal — comes from our face. People across cultures understand the value of a smile and other facial expressions that point toward the emotion we call “being happy” or happiness. And we know that smiling itself can help increase positive, pro-social behaviors.
But how much research has examined more specific positive emotions in facial expressions? Surprisingly, only one study has been conducted that examined how the face displays specific positive emotions. The researchers in that study found:
[…] that displays of amusement and pride were signaled by smiles, but that amused smiles tended to be open-mouthed, whereas smiles of pride had compressed lips. In contrast, awe was typically expressed with raised eyebrows and a slightly open mouth, but not with smiles.
This study highlights that there is likely more than one kind of smile and that different smile configurations may communicate different affective states.
Smiles are more complicated that the simple communication of happiness. They can communicate a wide range of positive emotions, depending upon their specific makeup.
What about expressions of pride? Pride is considered a “secondary emotion” behind more basic emotions such as happiness and fear. Surprisingly, expressions of pride across cultures shares some specific characteristics:
Using photographs of participants from over 30 nations, Tracy and Matsumoto showed that individuals who won a fight produced a number of behaviors typically associated with pride expressions, including raising their arms, tilting their head back, smiling, and expanding their chest. This configuration of cues is recognized by observers as communicating pride.
Happy Noises & Touching
Just as with pride, there are apparently a number of universally recognized human sounds that express positive emotion. Research has shown that specific emotions recognized from sounds alone include amusement, triumph, sensual pleasure (the one we’re all most familiar with!) and relief.
You’d think that touch would be a sense that has been well-studied, given how important touch is to our emotional needs. But there has been very little research conducted examining the effects of human touch. What little research that has been done has found that certain positive emotions can sometimes be detected through touch:
They found that participants from two cultures (USA and Spain) could decode affective states from tactile stimulation on the arm. Emotions that were well recognized included several positive states, such as love, gratitude, and sympathy. Hertenstein et al. also showed that love was typically signaled with stroking, gratitude was communicated with a handshake, and sympathy was expressed with a patting movement.
Of course, some positive emotions are not well communicated through touch, including the general sense of “happiness.” Notice that only specific positive emotions — and only certain ones — are well-communicated through touch. Pride is an example of a positive emotion that has no equivalent touch sense.
What’s in a smile? A lot of information, telling the receiver of the smile whether you meant you were happy, amused, or proud. Research into human expression of positive emotions is ongoing and will explore more of these areas in years to come.
What we have found so far is that not every specific positive emotion — for instance, pride — is expressed through every type of sense.
As the researcher notes, “It will be interesting to consider whether ease of communication via different types of signals may relate to different “families” of emotions, such as self-conscious emotions including pride, and prosocial emotions like love.” If happiness can only be communicated through facial expressions, and not through touch, that’s good information to know when we think we’re communicating our happiness to a loved one through a specific gesture.
Happiness is a core component of life and living, and is associated with helping protect us against heart disease and enhancing our overall health. We also know that gratitude tends to lead to more happiness. The better we understand how happiness is expressed to others, perhaps the more clearly we’ll be able to communicate such emotions in the future.
Sauter, D. (2010). More Than Happy: The Need for Disentangling Positive Emotions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19.
Grohol, J. (2018). What’s In a Smile?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/whats-in-a-smile/