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Are the smiley more lucky in love?

It has long been known that people's varying levels of emotionality lead to different responses in behaviour, but a group of psychologists in America have found an intriguing relationship between smile intensity in yearbook photos and subsequent marital harmony.

Smile intensity and relationship success may be linked

Psychologists have long theorised that people’s varying levels of emotionality lead to different responses in behaviour, thought and physiology both within the person, and with other people. Innately smiley babies, for example, are thought to evoke more positive responses from others, which sets them on a different developmental trajectory than their grumpy peers: how we express emotion shapes the world around us from the day we are born, which can lead to very different outcomes without us really knowing about it.

In 2001, a group of California researchers tested how well this theory stands up to reality by looking at women’s yearbook photos at a top university and comparing the intensity of their positive expression to various outcomes related to their future health, personality and marriages.

They found that there was a strong and convincing relationship: the more intense their yearbook smile was, the more likely these women were to be married by 27 and to rate their marriage in later years as ‘satisfying’. The smiley woman was more likely to be organised, content, nurturing, compassionate and sociable than her poker-faced classmates.

Spot the smilers!

However, this is only a correlation: is it that smiling more gets you your man, or that women who are more successful are as a result more likely to grin about it? It is difficult to tell which direction the effect works in at present, but the evidence for a relationship of some kind is very convincing.

Facial Action Coding System

Some might greet this research with a critical eye. After all, how on earth does one ‘measure’ the intensity of a smile? Were these results just down to arbitrary scores that the researchers gave to each woman? Fortunately not: social psychologists have become very skilled at quantifying the previously unquantifiable, and these researchers were no exception. They used a ‘Facial Action Coding System’ developed about 35 years ago, analyzing two muscle action units (orbicularis oculi and zygomatic major) for each photo. One set of muscles raises the cheeks and causes bagging round the eyes, and the other pulls the corners of the mouth up: both features of an intense and genuine smile which involves both the mouth and the eyes.

They scored the intensity of each muscle unit from 1 to 5, and added them together to make an overall score from 1 to 10. Several photos for each participant were used and averaged, and were double checked by different researchers for reliability. Using this method, new researchers were able to support and add to this evidence.

They used yearbook photos too, but also looked further back in the participants’ histories, analysing photos from childhood through to early adulthood. For both sets of photos, divorce rates were predicted successfully by the degree to which participants smiled: the less intense their smiles, the more likely they were to divorce.

No guarantees

Now, none of the researchers seem to be suggesting that forcing smiles in photos will guarantee you a successful marriage. For one, there are a myriad factors at play in the longevity of a relationship, not least the behaviour and emotionality of your partner and external factors such as stressful life events.

It is not so much about the smile itself than what the smile can evoke and signify: what this research does do is call attention to how much relationships are affected by the emotional well-being and resilience of its component individuals, and how they handle the curve-balls that the universe often throws us. It also offers an intriguing insight into the processes at play behind statistics which suggest that individuals with psychological problems such as depression are less likely to sustain long- term relationships than the rest of the population, and lends support to the work of relationship therapists, whose job it is to encourage the longevity of marriages whilst sustaining the emotional well-being of each partner.

The House Partnership, 15th April 2015


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