How to (Literally) Smile

A less-masked future is near, and our facial expressions will matter more than ever

Illustration by the author

As vaccination rates increase, we’re getting closer to a future where masks are less of a presence in our lives, and our smiles (and non-smiles) will once again be visible to friends, co-workers, and the strangers we pass on the sidewalk and in the grocery store.

If that sentence didn’t make you smile, please keep reading.

Until I looked into smiling while researching my book Works Well With Others, I didn’t realize how powerful a force it is. The simple act of smiling can change you and everyone around you, and that’s true now more than ever. A smile — the kind that happens because you mean it, not because some passing jerk on the street is yelling at you to produce one — can make you feel instantly happier. It can make others happier, too. It fosters connection. Smiling is inherently hopeful and generous, two qualities everyday life in the last year has crucially lacked. In our less-masked future, it will signal a kind of normalcy.

And there’s a right way to do it.

How to smile

Okay, ready? Smile.

There’s a reason being told to smile almost always has the opposite effect. And since you’re responding to instruction and not something that actually makes you happy, any smile you can conjure up is probably not what the psychologists call a “true” smile (or a “Duchenne” smile, after the pioneering 19th-century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne).

When you don’t like the way you look in a photo, it’s probably because you’re smiling this way. You’re contracting a muscle called the zygomaticus major, which pulls up the corners of your mouth, but you’re not involving the orbicularis oculi, the muscles that cause the corners of your eyes to crinkle. The orbicularis oculi are very difficult to contract voluntarily. You almost always need to be actually delighted in order for them to engage. And they’re what lets people know you’re truly happy.

So, think of something that delights you. A child with a balloon. If you don’t like children, maybe just a balloon.

Anyway, think of anything that makes you happy.

Now, that’s a genuine smile. That’s what makes you photogenic. That’s what makes you “light up” and makes other people respond to the warmth you’re giving off.

The benefits of smiling

Even if you’re not feeling it, though, that smile on your face can still be a powerful force. A landmark 1988 study proved it: Researchers had people look at cartoons while either holding a pen in their teeth (forcing a “smile”) or pressing it between their lips. The former group found the cartoons funnier than did the latter — suggesting they were more easily delighted because they’d already been “smiling.”

It’s like magic, really. Smiling begets happiness, which begets smiling, and so on.

That research was called into question in 2016, when researchers failed to replicate the study’s findings. But Fritz Strack, the German social psychologist who published the 1988 study, stands by his work.

And you know what? I’m with Fritz. Try putting on a big grin right now. See if it makes you feel even a little bit better. Maybe you’re a little rusty after this year. If smiling at other people doesn’t come naturally, just smile 20% wider than feels comfortable. Get toothier than seems advisable. Try squinting slightly, which will involve the muscles around the eyes.

Though you might feel awkward, you won’t look awkward. You’ll look satisfied and confident and happy to be there. To people who haven’t seen the bottom half of your face in way too long, it will be a welcome sight.

Executive Editor, Medium//author, Works Well With Others//writing 1–2x week mostly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way//rossmccammon.com

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