Photo credit: Quim do Porto Photography
“The purpose of our lives is to be happy” – The Dalai Lama
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twelve years of visiting Thailand, it’s this: when you report your lost suitcase to a member of Thai airways and she smiles reassuringly at you, be scared… Be very scared. Likely the smile means she has absolutely no idea where your suitcase has gone, even after an extensive exchange with her walkie-talkie, nor does she have any idea how to find it, so she smiles and nods reassuringly at you. It is also likely you will leave the airport with a care package comprising of socks and whitening cream. This smile also means you will most likely spend the next few days calling various customer service numbers, possibly even using high pitched sounds with the customer care representative, only to find out that really you should just calm down, lady, because in Frankfurt alone there are some 20,000 stranded suitcases, and you are mighty lucky to be in a country where the official farang dress code is a bikini and a coconut.
So smile. You are, after all, in the ‘Land of Smiles’.
The Thai language, in fact, recognises over a dozen different types of smiles. These range from the jovial “I’ve-just-won-the-lottery” smile (yim cheuat cheuan), to the defeated “my-situation-is-so-bad-I-might-as-well-smile” smile (yim soo), to the above-mentioned “sorry-we-lost-your-luggage-but-please-don’t-get-angry-with-me” smile (yim haring.) To the unacclimatised westerner, in whose culture a smile is most often synonym of happiness, arriving in a land where smiling is the Siamese equivalent of accessorizing, Thailand seems like a tropical utopia, a bubble of cerulean bliss, a sanctuary for the joyful, a celestial perch where friendly grins come to nest. Only after the painful realization that Thais can dispense equally as elegant smiles when greeting you for the first time as they do when giving you the proverbial finger, does the bubble burst forever.
But what’s in a smile?
In the western world, where social conventions do not necessarily require us to walk around with one hanging from our cheeks, smiles are essentially organised into a simple dichotomy: real or fake. Indeed, the modern study of human facial expressions, a field initiated by Darwin with his work on “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals“ (1872), recognizes only two kinds of smiles: the truthful ‘Duchenne smile‘ – named after the French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who studied the physiology of facial expressions in the nineteenth century – and the fake ‘social smile‘ (also referred to as the ‘Say Cheese’ smile.)
Julia Roberts’ real and fake smiles. Can you spot the difference? Take the test here.
Nevermind trying to accurately identify the 13 Thai smiles, studies have shown that most people are completely incompetent at discriminating between a contrived and an authentic smile. For this reason, scientists have devised a coding system called the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) in order to distinguish between the genuine and the fake. Results from various studies show that despite the differences between the two being too subtle for the average person to pick up on, there are significant life-long repercussions relating to life satisfaction, life quality and even marriage quality depending on whether or not you are an authentic smiler or a ‘say cheese’ smiler.
Although the facial outcome is very similar, a fake and a genuine smile actually result from the action of different muscles and even different brain areas. Fake smiles can be performed at will, because they are controlled by the conscious part of the brain and prompt the zygomaticus major muscles in the cheeks to contract – these are the muscles that pull the corners of the mouth outwards. Genuine Duchenne smiles, on the other hand, are generated by the unconscious brain, so are automatic. In this case, the muscles that raise the cheeks – the orbicularis oculi and the pars orbitalis – also contract, making the eyes crease up, and the eyebrows dip slightly. Perhaps then, the eyes are not ‘windows to the soul’, but rather decorative windowsills, bending to shape in consonance with our mood.
Furthermore, studies have shown that people with positive emotions are happier and have more stable personalities, more stable marriages, and better cognitive and interpersonal skills than those with negative emotions throughout their life. It has also been shown that happy people live on average 14% longer than persons who report that they are unhappy, they enjoy an increased longevity of between 7.5 and 10 years, they are also less likely to commit suicide, and are less often the victims of accidents. Duchenne smiling correlates so well with these variables, in fact, that studying smile intensity in childhood and college yearbook photos is enough to successfully predict lifespan!
A chimpanzee smile
But what is the use for this peculiar muscle contraction after all? If only authentic smiles are predictors of positive feelings, why go through the trouble of showing off our ivory beads when we are not genuinely happy?
Some research has shown that smiles can elicit cooperation among strangers in a one-shot interaction, because smiling evokes trustworthiness. Given that the smile is thought by some to have evolved from the submissive ‘show of teeth’ in primates, it doesn’t seem surprising then that a conscious lifting of the ends of our mouths may have been evolutionary advantageous since it can arouse positive reactions in others during social interactions. If this is true, it would explain why smiling seems to be an innate behaviour, and why children who are born blind show the same kinds of smiles under the same situations as sighted people. Thus, adapted from the simian toothed open-mouth grin, the smile evolved somewhere along the line into its present form: a friendly string of pearls dangling ear to ear from our naked human faces.
I’m not sure what kind of facial expression I was wearing during the interchange with the Thai Airways official, but I’m guessing I gave her some sort of friendly open-mouth tooth display, for which no name in Thai or any other language exists. I had withstood 2010’s wrath, I had survived Heathrow’s chaotic vortex, and I had endured 12 hours of imprisonment in a flying capsule that barely made it out of London’s snow, so when I found myself just ten minutes away from all-you-can-take sun, heat, countless coconut trees and a million other reasons to smile, I accessorized accordingly. My lips stretched outwardly like a happy hammock into my receding cheeks that now bunched up like two blown-up cushions at the sides of my face… and I stepped, luggageless, onto the tarmac wearing my best Duchenne to date.