A lot can be learned from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), one of which is why it is important to smile: Mr. Bingley, who puts on a more agreeable face, is received well by the people of Netherfield Park whereas Mr. Darcy, who doesn’t, is spurned. The science behind why Mr. Bingley experiences more social success than Mr. Darcy is explained in Marianne LaFrance’s Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expressions (2011).
LaFrance draws on the work of latest research in biology, psychology, sociology anthropology, computer science–and even quotes various works of literature–to shed light on the effects of putting on a happy face. Why Smile? is organized into three sections (Life, Lies, Loyalty), in which, through extensive research and engaging writing style, LaFrance explains the complexity of smiles.
“[Smiles] are consequential–they affect what others feel and do…they are indispensable to physical health, psychological well-being, and social visibility….[A smile] is a social magnet, a trustworthiness meter, a device for diffusing anger, a patch for repairing interpersonal bonds, and lubricant for keeping social ties in good working order” (53-54).
While I enjoyed all that I learned from this book, the sections dealing with the effects of depressed caregivers on infants was the most fascinating to me. LaFrance explains that newborns are naturals at mimicry, as it is the means by which they begin to make sense of the world and socialize. Mothers who are depressed are less likely to smile and less likely to mirror or respond to their baby’s cooing. As such, these babies become “fussier, and drowsier, and show less contentment than infants whose mothers are not depressed” (86). It seems as if there’s also a higher chance of such children becoming depressed themselves in life, as well as to become less able to regulate their emotions and to develop fewer social skills. Interestingly, new research suggests that there’s a higher incidence of mental health problems among children whose fathers suffer from postpartum depression regardless of the mother’s mental health. That’s because a father’s depression casts a greater shadow on the whole family.
Other than the first chapter, which I found to be more scientific in nature because of the background information about the biology of a smile, Why Smile? is a rather quick and engaging read. LaFrance peppers her narrative with enough personality and new information to keep the book from being too technical or redundant. She also summarizes her main points at the end of each chapter, which I found very helpful. Well-researched and conveyed through an interdisciplinary approach, Why Smile? is a satisfying (though not necessarily compelling) read that is well worth your time.
NOTE: Page numbers refer to the 2013 Norton paperback edition. The book was originally published in 2011 under the title, Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics.