Do Big Smiles Predict Longer Lives?

Ernest Abel is a researcher at Wayne State University who specializes in the role of emotions in longevity. He recently teamed up with Michael Kruger to sort through the official photos of a couple hundred pro baseball players from the 1950s. They parsed the photos into three categories: players with genuine smiles (the kind that involve the muscles around the mouth as well as those near the corner of the eyes), players who didn’t smile, and players with partial smiles (which involve only mouth muscles). Then they looked at these players’ lifespans.

Their findings? Players with full smiles lived an average of seven years longer than those who didn’t smile for the camera and five years longer than those with half smiles. The link between smile intensity and longevity held up even after the researchers accounted for other factors associated with longevity—things like education, body mass index, and career length.

Overall, 35 percent of the difference in the players’ longevity could be attributed to differences in the size of their smiles. And as the authors explain:

To the extent that smile intensity reflects an underlying emotional disposition, the results of this study are congruent with those of other studies demonstrating that emotions have a positive relationship with mental health, physical health, and longevity (Psychological Science).

Relatively speaking, only a few of the players had full smiles, which “indicates that even if smiles were requested” by the photographers, “smile intensity reflected a general underlying disposition,” the authors write. Then again, it’s hard to know the extent to which a large smile reflects a happy disposition—especially in photos that are staged rather than candid.

People who are conscientious might be more willing to heed a photographer’s request to “say cheese,” and conscientiousness has also been linked to longevity. Alternatively, players who smiled could be more sociable than others. “A long line of work indicates that greater and deeper social networks increase well-being and longevity in life,” Matt Hertenstein says (New Scientist).

Earlier this year, we spoke with Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University, after he published research showing that how intensely we smile in our childhood photos could predict our future happiness and marital success. Essentially, those who smiled least in their photos were five times more likely to get divorced down the road than those who smiled biggest. But there are many possible explanations for this link, as he points out:

Perhaps people who smile in response to the directive from the photographer to smile are more obedient people in general. Obedience may be a trait that leads to longer-lasting marriages. Of course, our findings are correlational, so no inferences of causation can be drawn with confidence. The task remains for researchers to better understand how such a small sample of behavior in a person’s life can predict anything about our future selves.

Category: Positive Psychology


2 Responses

  1. ABrookhart says:

    Hahahahahahaha this is pretty funny! How were they able to research this and come up with these statistics? In all honesty, what it being said makes a lot of sense in the article. People who are happier and smile more have less stress and therefore are able to live a longer life. I really like this article and what it says. Psychology is a pretty interesting topic.

  2. Harry Braun says:

    According to a new study, the key to living longer is having a purpose in life.

    According to Dr. Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and an assistant professor of behavioural sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, setting goals and working towards them is a huge factor in longevity.

    Read: Growing Old – a key factor

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