Big Question: Why do we smile?

Alyssa Contreras
4 min readFeb 14, 2017


Marquette Magazine recently spotted this tweet by Marquette student Emily Tau: “Dear Twitter world, I am feeling crabby today. I need to smile. What makes YOU smile?

The expert: Dr. Nakia Gordon, assistant professor of psychology, whose research focuses on understanding how emotions impact the way individuals navigate their worlds.

“Smiling, like most facial expressions, communicates to those around us what we are feeling. In fact, individuals with relatively little contact with the industrialized world were able to accurately identify at least four (e.g. happiness, sadness, anger, disgust) facial expressions made by those from other cultures. This begs the question whether emotion expressions are universal. Most researchers assume they are.

“While neuroimaging data (pictures of the brain when it is active) tells us how emotional expressions are perceived, it doesn’t tell us why we smile (as opposed to frown, for example). Charles Darwin suggested that facial expressions indicate the intention of animals — and by extension, humans. It takes a small leap of faith to understand his rationale for smiling. In his explanation, an animal will bare its teeth as a warning to other animals. He suggested humans co-opted this behavior as a greeting.

“It has not been resolved whether expressions are learned or innate, but it does seem that all humans use the same expressions to communicate basic emotions. We also know that we manipulate our expressions to have control over what we communicate. You do not have to be happy to smile, and you can smile and not be happy … at least not initially.

“In fact, ‘turning that frown upside down’ can make you feel happier. Research suggests that our brains receive feedback from our muscles (and other internal organs) to help discern how we feel. For example, placing a pen horizontally between the teeth (creating a smile) caused participants to rate comics as being funnier than when the pen was placed lengthwise in the mouth. Emotions such as pride and shame have also been induced simply through body posture.

“But let us be clear, it is not enough to turn your lips upwards. Smiling with your eyes, known as a Duchenne smile, is more effective at creating a sense of positive mood than a ‘fake smile.’ Moreover, genuinely smiling during distressing tasks (such as talking for five minutes about challenges adjusting to college) resulted in better emotional adjustment at a later point. Thus, smiles do not merely represent and communicate how we feel to others, they also help us experience those feelings more robustly. In some situations, they may even help us regulate how we feel.”

Comments from Original Post

Comment by Lauren! at Apr 26 2010 01:30 pm

“Smiling with your eyes, known as a Duchenne smile, is more effective…” Tyra Banks would approve of this article. word.

Comment by Don Layton at Jul 26 2011 07:07 pm

This is my Theory of Smiling

We will start with being tickled. We have some areas on our bodies that are more sensitive than others. They are there so we can sense being touched and react quickly. Humans, not having the ability to push off with front legs to get moving fast, move our arms. In order to move we exhale, that help speed our moving.
Any time we are surprised, we move. We move a lot when we hear a funny joke. we move when we see someone we like. We move when we are happy.
I beleive we can prove this by having an audience hold on to a horizonal bar, just below chest high. And having a comedian tell jokes to them.
And then have them listen without the bar.
I beleive they will laugh more without the bar!
While we are exhaling, to control the output of air our vocal chords cycle on and off. That makes a sound like laughing. To insure the air can get out we open our mouth. Opening your mouth by lowering the jaw takes more energy, so we open our mouth sideways, that looks like a smile.
Anytime we do deep breathing exercise,, we feel better because of the extra oxygen we get.
So it means if we laugh, we get more oxygen.
So the reason we smile is to let air out. Which does not take away the value of a smile, because when you see someone and they smile at you, you will know they are tickled to see you!

Comment by nataiya at Oct 24 2014 11:55 pm

im doing a sciece test and i was wondering if i could ask some qeustions some time before october 25th