A vocabulary of smiles

26 07 2020

Like many people this week, I have struggled to get my head around wearing a mask when I go out shopping. For a start, there are so many small considerations, such as when to actually pull the mask up to the mouth and when to lower it. A whole new social etiquette is emerging which I’m finding in some ways amusing and in other ways confusing.

Yesterday, an encounter in a coffee shop amused when the manager offered a plastic visor to an elderly couple, who had forgotten their masks, to try on for size. Even though I was masked, I was also offered a turn so that I could agree that the plastic shield bearing the breath droplets of strangers was far superior to my own cloth model.

The confusing part involves how to speak to people when they can’t see your mouth. Rather than offer a muffled ‘morning’ which seems superfluous now that my accompanying smile cannot be read is it perhaps better to offer a nod instead?

In Born to be Good, a fascinating study on human behaviour, social psychologist Dacher Keltner, devotes an entire chapter to the significance of the smile His research dissects the different types of smile human animals offer to each other. One classic example is the ‘service industry smile’ ‘the one that signals the customer is always right’ and masks the frustration of workers who must never show their feelings no matter how unreasonable the demands made by the one being served. This smile creates such strain Keltner observes as to ‘produce a form of schizophrenia.’

“We may experience feelings of emptiness and quiet frustration, or a deep ennui, but we display to the world the smile of satisfaction.”

Dacher Keltner Born to be Good (2009)


There are many different occasions when people smile and Keltner’s research has shown that people smile while exposed to the most unlikely situations, for example, after losing and when watching a film of an amputation. But the emotion behind the smile differs according to which muscles are activated. Smiles which activate the delightfully named ‘happiness muscle’ or the orbicularis oculi tend to last longer and communicate genuinely positive states. These smiles have been named Duchenne or D smiles after the French neuroanatomist Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne (1806-1875). If the happiness muscle does not fire, smiling still happens, but does not last as long and often masks a negative state. These non-Duchenne or non-D smiles might be anxious or nervous smiles or smiles to cover up the true emotion.

This research shows that it really is true that we smile most fully with our eyes, which is good news for those who feel that the full range of emotions has been muted by the necessity of wearing a mask. Interestingly, because only the eyes can be seen it might make it easier to read the genuineness of a smile.

Here’s Keltner on how you tell if it’s D or non-D: when contracted, the muscle around the eyes, raises the cheek, pouches the lower eyelid and wrinkles the skin into crow’s feet – the most visible sign of happiness. ‘People may think they look prettier following Botox injections, but their partners will receive fewer clues to their joy, love and devotion.’

So, the next time I’m shopping along with my fellow mask wearers and we’re all eyeing each other as we try to navigate this strange new social landscape, I must remember to look for the crow’s feet.

In the example above, taken from Born to be Good, which is probably one of the funniest works of psychology I’ve ever read, the D smile for the first gentleman, is on the right; for the second, it is on the left. Of course, you all got that, didn’t you?


The gift of harmony

22 12 2019
Walking through the woods

Horses are drawn to harmony. Discord bothers them as I witnessed this week when the herd stopped what they were doing to focus on the sound of someone talking on their mobile phone as he walked down the lane next to their field. The tone of the phone conversation was impossible to ignore: a ferocious exchange consisting of four-letter expletives, fired one after the other. All four horses were on high alert.

Now I know that tempers can be short at this time of the year, and our horses are used to swearing; they live next door to farmers, whose choice of language can be colourful, but there was something about this incident that started me thinking about harmony. It seemed to me that the horses were alerted because something felt peculiar in that particularly charged conversation; it seemed to project even over a high hedge a certain force, and lack of balance that had an immediate ripple effect on five other beings, who became part of the exchange.

It was only when the man on the mobile had walked out of hearing range that the horses were able to resume eating their bale. For horses, returning to balance is an essential part of living in harmony, but it is not so instinctive for us humans, especially those with Christmas trains to catch or cars to park in crowded supermarket car-parks. Humans under pressure often resort to self-interested behaviour, and we justify it because we notice that everyone is really out for themselves, and we’d be a fool not to whip into the last space in the car park even though we’ve seen the person next to us has been waiting just that tiny bit longer. Small actions make up our daily lives, and it’s tempting to ignore what we would rather not acknowledge. Because we often gain from our blindness, it’s tempting to live life pretending we ‘didn’t see,’ or ‘didn’t notice,’ or ‘didn’t think.’

Horses are so interesting to observe because they have a talent for harmony. Mean looks, threats, and quarrels flare often, but are resolved in seconds, as each horse looks for a way to become settled and at ease. Expletives, grudges and long-running personal battles are unnecessary within a harmonious herd. Imagine if our lives were more like this?

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, a book of immense practical wisdom from which I have gleaned so much to inspire my teaching, believes it is possible for harmony to become our home base. This is not a utopian vision, even though it sounds like one.

“Imagine a world in which a critical mass of human brains – 100 million? a billion? More? – spend most if not all of each day in the responsive mode. Eventually there would come a tipping point, a qualitative alteration in the course of human history. People would still lock their doors at night, still reach for a profit, and still disagree and compete with one another. They would still need to be guided by values and virtues. But the ancient internal fires of fear, frustration and heartache would be banked low or extinguished for lack of fuel. Remember how you feel, yourself, when you are resting in a basic sense of peace, contentment and love. Remember what it’s like to be with others who are also rested in this state of being. Imagine what your family would be like, your workplace and your community, too.”

Imagine needing nothing except the gift of harmony. The horses show us the way.

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