Monday, April 04, 2005

The Come Dancing Smile

Until recently, since I could not smile on cue, and as a result, I always looked glum in photographs. No longer! Earlier this year I resolved to overcome this deficiency and develop a camera-ready smile. The result—an expression I call the “Strictly Come Dancing Smile”—has been a magnificent success. In photo after photo, I look almost revoltingly happy.

The Come Dancing smile was inspired by a popular English television show, "Strictly Come Dancing" on which professional ballroom dancers are paired with minor celebrities. The professional teaches the celebrity a flashy dance routine, and the couples then compete against one another. While watching this show in England when I was home for Christmas, I noticed that the professional dancers maintained a radiant smile at all times. After studying this smile for several shows, I realized that the secret was simple: just show your teeth. However fake this smile may feel, it looks genuine. (In my case, it looks more genuine than my real smile.)

Smile experts, it turns out, have already discovered the Come Dancing smile, and given it a name. They call it the “Pan-Am” or “Pan-American” smile (named after the grins of flight hostesses in ads for that now defunct airline). I learned this from a book called Authentic Happiness, which I am reading as part of my ongoing pursuit of nirvana. According to this book, there are two types of smile—the other is the “Duchenne” smile, named after its discoverer Guillaume Duchenne. I’m not sure how you can “discover” a smile, which is not the kind of thing you find lurking in a Petri dish, but apparently he did. The Duchenne smile is genuine. The corners of your mouth turn up and the skin around your eyes crinkles. The Pan-Am smile, by contrast, is an inauthentic rictus, in which the lips part and the corners of the mouth are stretched out to the sides, rather than up.

According to Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley psychology professor and savant of smiles, the English do the Duchenne smile more. This led to a gloating article in the Times, in which the English smile is lauded as “restrained but dignified,” and the Yank smile is decried as “far less expressive.” In fact, I suspect that the Americans do the Duchenne smile just as much as their British brethren. But in situations when the Englishman might look glum, the American opts for a Pan-Am. And what is wrong with that?

By the way, I hope you were smiling in your college yearbook, and I hope it was the right smile. This is an accurate predictor of whether you will be happy. As recounted in Authentic Happiness, Keltner studied 141 senior class photos from the 1960 yearbook of Mills College. All but three of the women were smiling, and half of the smilers were Duchenne smilers. When the women were contacted 30 years later, Duchenne women were on average more likely to be happily married and satisfied with their lives. The book does not say what happened to the non-smilers, who perhaps became the trio of homeless crack addicts outside my window. And what lies in store for those who, like me, did not bother to contribute a yearbook photo? Apparently, a fate too horrible to mention.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think there even was a yearbook for my college. Maybe this means I don't exist at all! I had suspected this all along.

I've also heard somewhere that if you force yourself to smile, it has some effect on your brain and it is supposed to make you happier.

I guess your brain says - Oh, we're smiling? Maybe I wasn't paying attention. We must be happy. ...happy... ...happy...

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for explaining the difference between a duchenne and pan-american smile...i didn't know the difference and couldn't find the words in any dictionary. didn't know there was a book written on them (my friends just looked at me like i was really dumb not knowing what they meant!) thanks for the explanation.

5:26 AM  

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