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Smiles Mean Money in France, But Hidden Benefits Are Even More Enriching

Here in the free world, I highly recommend smiling. And go all the way. You can fake it 'til you make it, but the Duchenne smile is a more powerful mood changer than the perfunctory one flashed at the Pan Am jet-setters.
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"A person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American."
-- Russian adage

The French government has launched a new campaign to make its citizens smile in an effort to promote a more welcoming environment for tourists. But science tells us that French authorities will be beating their heads against the wall if they really think they can coax aloof Parisians to put on a happy face.

Because, well, there's no smiling in France.

Or so say psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who have found that the most expressive nations -- those with citizens who are quickest to crack a smile - are those with heavy immigrant populations. That puts the homogeneous France near the bottom of the list with Russia and Japan. Among the leaders: Canada, Brazil and the good ol' U.S.A.

So, what is it about living in the world's melting pots that puts smiles on the faces of their citizenry? Simply put, a smile is the mother tongue. It bridges language barriers, predicts trust and signals friendly intentions among people of disparate origin.

And conversely, it is a lack of smiles, among other things, that has given France a reputation for being a difficult place to visit, especially if you don't speak the language.

This isn't the first time the French have tried to legislate smiles to convey warmth to tourists. The current effort is similar to campaigns in 2003 and 2009 , when the tourism board set up "smile ambassadors" at the nation's most-visited spots. But by all accounts, the efforts of the police du sourire fell flat. Those smiles turned - or stayed - upside down.

What Happens to Our Brains When We Smile

There is fascinating research about the power of an upturned mouth. Smiling activates the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, that help fight off stress. Having too little of these brain chemicals has been linked to depression. When we smile, we also trigger the release of "happy hormones," including endorphins, the same chemicals that give us that "runner's high" after exercising. Even aping a smile can spark a feeling of happiness and reduce stress. Charles Darwin was the first to suggest that one's emotions could be enhanced by one's expressions, positing that just the act of smiling produces positive emotion.

Fast forward more than 100 years and "positive emotion" leads off renowned positive psychologist Martin Seligman's five-sided PERMA model of the traits that foster well-being. According to Seligman, there are two kinds of smiles, the "Duchenne smile" and the "Pan American" smile. The Duchenne smile (named for neurologist Guillaume Duchenne) is involuntary and genuine. It is a broad smile that forms wrinkles on the outer edges of the eyes (i.e. crow's feet). On the other hand, the Pan Am smile (the forced smile of flight attendants from the long-defunct airline), is inauthentic. It involves only the muscles of the mouth. (To see if you can spot the fake from the real smile, take this quiz from the BBC.)

But back to our poker-faced friends around the world: In the UW-Madison study, researchers examined the psychology of smiling in 726 people from nine countries and compared the results for each country with its immigration numbers. Participants were asked what constituted a good reason to smile, with options like, "is a happy man," "to sell you something," or "feels inferior to you."

The results? Countries with more immigration over the last 500 years were more likely to interpret the smile as a happy or friendly gesture.

In countries with less diverse pasts, such as France, Russia and Japan, the act of smiling is more complex. Japanese people will grin to mask negative feelings. The Japanese tend to control their expression of emotion so much so that people there have been given instruction in the art of the smile. Meanwhile, the French are so notorious for not smiling that the British tourism group VisitBritain released a guidebook with tips for U.K. hoteliers to avoid offending guests from other nations. "Don't exchange a smile or make eye contact with anyone from France who you do not know," the guidebook states.

But can we equate the act of smiling with true happiness? In a paper called "The French Unhappiness Puzzle," economist Claudia Senik argues that France's "cultural mentality" makes the French far less happy than their wealth and lifestyle would predict. Senik's research suggests that French unhappiness is due in large part to "multi-dimensional" dissatisfaction and a low level of trust in other people. She says policies to address unhappiness in France should start in early childhood.

A smile, real or fake, is a good starting point, and the bigger the grin, the better. Researchers at Wayne State University analyzed the smiles of 230 Major League Baseball players culled from their 1952 trading cards to test how positive emotions affect longevity. The intensity of the players' smiles was compared with life data for the men, controlling for body mass index, education, career length and other factors. As it turned out, the players with the broadest smiles lived seven years longer.

The Big Picture

The UW-Madison researchers believe there are public policy implications that come with exposure to, and understanding of, diverse cultures living within the same borders. For example, said lead author Paula Niedenthal, citizens "may be more or less willing to pay for universal healthcare, because they empathize differently with in-group and out-group members."

So let's hope the French Smile Revolution is a winner this time around. It'll build trust among tourists and natives alike, and lift moods all around. Personally, I hope the friendly efforts penetrate deeper than a superficial strategy aimed at fiscal gain, because we don't have to excavate ancient history to see how the smile has been used as a propaganda tool.

Here in the free world, I highly recommend smiling. And go all the way. You can fake it 'til you make it, but the Duchenne smile is a more powerful mood changer than the perfunctory one flashed at the Pan Am jet-setters.


Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation center and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is an addiction blogger and the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives.