Why are smiles contagious?


Scientists have recently discovered exactly why we smile when other people are grinning at us. There is an innate biological reason behind the saying that happiness is contagious, which is probably good news for a blog like this. We’ve all had those experiences when your smile just seeing someone else happy. It doesn’t even have to be someone you know, in fact. If you see a stranger on the street who is grinning about something, it can brighten our day, even subconsciously. In today’s world, I think it is reassuring to see people continuing to smile and laugh and enjoy life; it’s a reminder that not everything is bad on our planet.

Now let’s get onto the science. Why exactly do we smile when someone else does? Well, social psychologists at the University of Wisconsin have discovered that our facial expressions are related not only to how we feel but are also used to mirror our companions’ emotions as a display of empathy. And this empathy doesn’t have to be sad, although the word is often associated with a negative range of emotions. It’s more about displaying that we understand and share the feeling of our friends. So yes, we can look sad when our friends are sad. But we can also empathise with laugher and happiness by smiling at people. The researchers call this facial mimicry.

Let’s delve a little deeper into this facial mimicry and how it happens. Well actually, the mimicry is the most important part here. The study discovered our brains work in a slightly curious way but because the neural responses are so fast we’d never notice it ourselves. It starts off as you would expect; we see a facial expression. The second step, however, is mimicry. You see someone smile, you smile yourself. You see someone is sad, your lips turn downwards. It is not until we get to the third step that our brain finally realises what the emotion is. Basically we smile because we see someone smiling and it takes a fraction of a moment for our bodies to understand the meaning behind this move. This is because our brains are wired so we smile when we’re happy and by mimicking the expression, those feelings of happiness are sparked and we recognise the emotion we are seeing. Once recognised, our brains seek out our own experiences of that emotion and allow us to be empathic and understanding by recalling how our body felt when we last smiled/laughed/cried/frowned. All this happens in fractions of a second and is not something we are at all conscious of but it is very important.

Learning to read facial expressions is a skill we innately gain as we grow up and it is a really vital ability when it comes to making friends and being in social situations. Our faces are, effectively, an open book with regards to what we are feeling, so being able to understand how people feel by looking at their faces is crucial to good social interactions. Once we know how the other person feels (happy, sad, angry, confused) we are then able to make a decision when it comes to responding in an appropriate way. We’ve all had those experiences with someone in a conversation when they appear to have completely misjudged the situation and say something inappropriate. This probably happened because the person failed to read not only the dynamic but also people’s facial expressions and incorrectly interpreted the feel and vibe of the group as a result. Some people find it harder to read faces and some people have faces which are harder to read, however. Because what’s life without a few awkward social occasions?

Faces are also one of the few ways of communicating which requires no language and therefore is universal all over the world. Tribesmen in the Amazon who have never experienced any other cultures would be able to tell that a family on the beach in Australia were happy. It should however be noted that faces are not the only way we communicate emotions because language can also be very important. Phone calls, for example, before the rise of FaceTime and Skype, were only verbal. That didn’t mean we couldn’t understand how the person on the other end of the call felt, we just had to work it out from the tone and language use rather than visual clues. Our brains, therefore, use a variety of ways to decipher emotions of those around us. Smiles just happen to be the one which fits with this blog.

So what has this got to do with More Good Deeds? Well, if you’re struggling for something nice to do for people, why not smile at them? Seriously, it’s a good deed. If you smile at someone and they smile back, we now know their brains are registering feelings of happiness. Which is what acts of kindness are all about, right? As someone who’s spent time in London, a city notorious for its lack of smiles and positive interactions (especially on public transport), I can safely say a smile from a stranger goes a long way to brightening my day.

I’m a smiley person, I realised. But I also noticed how much I get smiled back at when I walked to the market for my daily soup. Living in Cambodia and working from home has allowed me to fall into a lovely routine which involves a trip to the local market each lunchtime to get food because it’s actually cheaper to eat out than cook here. Plus, I’m not exactly a culinary expert… Anyway, let me tell you about my journey for soup today:

I emerged out of my front gate in the blazing midday sun to see my occasional motodop driver sat on his moto. He grinned at me and asked “you go for lunch?” I replied in the affirmative, an interaction we have every single day. I then walked about 100 yards to the market and was greeted along the way by four different, smiling tuk tuk drivers (I’ve lived in my house for two years so they all know me). On the corner of my street and the market is an ice cream stand where the young worker grinned widely at me (I went through an ice cream phase a few months back and she’s never forgotten). I crossed the busy intersection without smiling – too much concentration needed on not dying for that! Then I walked halfway down the side of the market until I reached the entrance which allows me to beeline for the soup (can’t be dealing with swarms of tourists when I’m on a writing deadline). I am greeted with wide grins from five market sellers – I’ve never bought anything from them but I am known as soup girl. I know this because they say it every day as I pass them; I’m not adverse to the nickname but I’m also sure they think I can’t understand them. Soup in the Cambodian language is … ‘soop’. My soup lady smiles at me too. Probably because she is earning $1.75 every day from my new habit. We don’t even talk any more though. I stood beside her stall, smiled and nodded, and five minutes later she handed over a bag of soup. Yes, soup is served in bags here. I then walked back through my smiling market ladies, the smiling ice cream server, the many smiling tuk tuk drivers, and finally greeted my moto driver. “Soup for lunch?” “Always,” I replied with a final smile.

As someone who spends eight to ten hours a day sat in front of their computer writing, I relish this short break outside into the world, especially because the entire trip is such a happy experience. With food at the end, of course. And we know from an earlier blog that food makes us happy. So the next time you walk down the street, smile at someone. You just might make their day.

Go. Do. Experience. More Good Deeds.