Why do we smile? Exploring the psychology behind smiling

Connor Hughes explains why offering tooth straightening in your practice is so important for you patients.

As many people are aware, the health benefits of straight teeth are exponential. Healthier gums, teeth becoming easier to clean and reduction in tooth injuries are just a few of the benefits of having straight teeth.

However, what many might not be aware of is the impact straight teeth can have on someone’s self-esteem and general psychological outlook. The benefits of having healthy teeth stretch far beyond oral health.

Getting straight to the point

Having your teeth correctly aligned isn’t just an aesthetic improvement. Of course, the main aim for any dental or orthodontic practitioner is to ensure your teeth are healthy and aren’t causing you any discomfort. In short: healthy teeth = bigger smile = happier person.

It’s truly amazing what aligning these little white pieces of bone can do for a person’s self-esteem. In this article, I’m going to show you that teeth are more than mere mechanical instruments used to grind up food for our bodies.

The psychology behind smiling

Humans smile when they’re happy. It’s that simple. Additionally, we like being around people who make us smile and surround ourselves with things that brighten up our day. We also admire others who have confident smiles; it’s contagious and even envious.

So, why is this? Why does smiling trigger a positive, confident reaction in people? Is it the contagious effect? Is it pressure? Is it admiration? Let’s look at the reasons why.

The psychology of smiling with straight teeth

The first person to observe smiling and its connection to laugher and happiness was Charles Darwin. The most prevalent of his findings was that smiling, unsurprisingly, was universal. However, more interestingly, the ‘rules’ around smiling are dominated by culture.

For example, in a study on smiling, research found that southerners smile more than people from the north (England), while east Asians cover their smiles.

It goes back to that simple truth; you smile more if you’re confident in the appearance of your teeth. Having straight teeth comes with many psychological benefits and people are starting to realise this and consequently, are now acting on it.

The importance of having straight teeth

While many may disagree, we are now living in a society where if you aren’t noticed in the ‘visual world’, you simply do not exist.

A Kelton Research study states: ‘whether a person’s smile and teeth are straight or crooked can have significant impact on her or his romantic and career success.’ This ideal can be applied to almost any part of the body. Take Max Olesker’s article on The rise and rise of the spornosexual – in it, he picks apart the positive effects of obtaining a prime physical appearance and how becoming ‘good-looking’ immediately grants the subject a huge boost in confidence and aesthetic assurance. Dental implants, Invisalign and veneers are now some of the most popular cosmetic enhancements on the market and technology is constantly being improved to keep up with society’s demands.

The differentiations between our smiles

GB Duchenne believed that there was more than one way to smile, claiming that of all the smiles: ‘only one type of smile accompanied the positive emotions.‘ He continued: ‘The emotion of frank joy is expressed on the face by the combined contraction of the zygomatic major muscle, and the orbicularis oculi. The first obeys the will but the second is only put into play by the sweet emotions of the soul.’

Simply put, Duchene believes we only have one smile that triggers genuine happiness. The rest are respectively factious, or reveal other emotions hiding behind the façade of a smile.

Below are the six distinct smiles Ekman describes in his study. These are the smiles that seek to give people an indication of what each means or represents:

  1. The felt smile – this is long and intense and shows all sign of positive feeling associated with amusement, contentment, and pleasure from stimulation
  2. The fear smile – which are misnomers because neither has to do with positive emotions, though both can have a ‘smiley mouth’ and dimples
  3. The dampened smile – this is a real smile where people attempt to suppress or conceal the extent of their positive emotions
  4. The miserable smile – a ‘grin and bear’ smile, indicating stoicism about negative emotions
  5. The flirtatious smile – which is partly embarrassed because the person gazes/faces away from the person of interest/contact
  6. The Chaplin smile – a contorted supercilious smile that in effect, smiles at smiling.

While everyone uses these smiles, they play a particularly important role in the media, as celebrities are often taught how to smile and show happiness in front of the public.

Ekman’s smiles in the media

Actors, business people, sports personalities and especially politicians practise smiling in order to appear happy, or at least content.

Celebrities are spending thousands of pounds on straightening their teeth in order to improve their public image. Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck, Miley Cyrus, Morgan Freeman, Niall Horan and Cristiano Ronaldo are just a handful of high-profile celebrities to have their teeth straightened. As you can imagine, their public image and most notably their confidence has improved thanks to the advances in cosmetic dentistry.

This is because they are often in the spotlight and if seen to convey any emotion other than happiness, the media may seek to spin a story out of it. Additionally, there are also things they learn not to do! Opening your mouth unless laughing, producing a sudden flash smile, or having a rehearsed smile that bears no relation to what you’re saying are all best avoided.

Some celebrities rarely smile, whether that’s in their nature is debatable, more likely they’ve been told or taught not to smile in order to indicate power or even fear. Margaret Thatcher and Vladimir Putin are prime example of this, both of whom are in power. Donald Trump on the other hand, exhibits a wide variety of emotion when addressing his audience, whether or not that’s planned is anyone’s guess.

Having healthier teeth leads to a healthier life

Dental practitioners will always be more concerned about your oral health and hygiene as opposed to aestheticism. However, most of the time, healthy teeth and gums come with better-looking teeth. There are three core reasons why healthier teeth lead to a healthier and happier life:

  1. It may sound obvious but straight teeth are easier to clean. The reason is simple, there are fewer awkward places to reach with a toothbrush. Bacteria thrives in crooked teeth, as the gaps provide space for the bacteria to multiply and cause discomfort
  2. Secondly, straight teeth mean proper alignment. If teeth are not aligned, it can cause an uneven bite when eating and eventually force the teeth to bear more weight than necessary, resulting in discomfort and bruxism
  3. And third, having straight teeth reinforces the strength and health of your jaws and greatly minimise the risk of over-and-under-bites. Most of the time, jaw pain and joint disorders arise when the two jaws are not properly aligned. Having straight teeth will benefit you in the long run, minimising the need for surgery later in life due to joint disorders.

So, if you’re unsure about whether or not to offer teeth straightening, just reflect on the benefits on both your patient’s health and psychological outlook. Straight teeth will not only improve confidence but can save a small fortune in the long-term.

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