Men’s and women’s smiles do not mean the same thing

The Happy Couple

The Happy Couple

Here’s my March 2011 article for Positive Psychology News Daily, in it’s entirety – sorry that it’s so late!

This month focuses on new research behind the meaning of smiling, and in particular, the intriguing differences between men’s and women’s smiles.

I don’t know what it is about March but for me it’s such an optimistic month. Spring is well and truly here, the buds are appearing, daffodils blooming and gone are the long dark days of winter. Spring is also the time for love and romance – you can just picture the scene, the happy couple smiling as they emerge from the church, wedding bells ringing in the air and confetti floating like blossom on the wind.

Yearbook Smiles

Thinking about smiling, marriage and well-being, one piece of research that every student of positive psychology can reel off is the Yearbook Study, in which the genuineness (or ‘Duchenne-ness’ as Chris Peterson calls it) of women students’ smiles in their college yearbook photos predicted, 30 years later, whether they were married and scored highly on life satisfaction, good relationships and managing stress. This study by Lee Anne Harker and Dacher Keltner in 2001 is often used to illustrate the ‘build’ aspect of Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions – that positive emotions are about more than just feeling good, they help to build social and psychological resources too. In short feeling happy now is much more than an end in itself, it’s also an important influence on your future well-being.

One of the limitations of this research is, obviously, that its participants are all female – it used data from a pre-existing study (the Mills Longitudinal Study) – and I wonder how much it also applies to men. Do men’s smiles now predict future happy marriages and personal life satisfaction?

But What About Men?

Yesterday I accidentally came across a little snippet of new research by Simine Vazire, Laura Naumann, Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling on smiling which suggests that male and female smiles don’t mean the same thing. In other words smiling reflects different emotions depending on gender. This study found that smiling is positively associated with positive emotion in women but not in men. In men, smiling is negatively associated with negative emotion. Curious isn’t it?

Equally happy?

Equally happy?

In the study, 76% of women smiled compared to only 41% of men, although they experienced similar levels of positive emotion (measured using the PANAS – Positive and Negative Affect Scale).  In short, positive emotion is a strong positive predictor of smiling for women but not for men, and negative emotion is a strong negative predictor of smiling for men but not for women.

Different Adaptations for Men and Women?

So, if we’ve got this right it would seem that women smile when they’re happy, and men smile when…well…they’re not unhappy. In line with Jacob Vigil’s socio-relational framework of expressive behaviours (which in lay terms means that the way we express certain emotions is adaptive and motivates others to respond to us in ways which enhance our social fitness) Simine Vazire and her colleagues suggest that in women, smiling signals warmth, trustworthiness and enthusiasm to others, and in doing so attracts fewer and more intimate relationships (not sure about the fewer!), whereas in men, smiling signals confidence, calmness and a lack of self-doubt and distress, which apparently attracts numerous, less intimate relationships.

If that’s the case, then this adds some further detail to Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory. Perhaps the Yearbook Study isn’t quite as straightforward as it’s often portrayed, and the positive emotional paths to future well-being are rather more winding than direct. It would be interesting to see if a similar study of men’s smiling  or unsmiling yearbook photos resulted in similar well-being outcomes.

It’s a bit of a cliché that men complain that they don’t understand women, but to me it now seems the other way round. I mean, what is it that men do when they’re feeling happy then, if it’s not smiling? Any suggestions??


Harker, L., & Keltner, D. (2001). Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(1), 112-124.

Vazire, S., Naumann, L.P., Rentfrow, P.J.& Gosling, S.D. (2009). Smiling reflects different emotions in men and women. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 403 -405. Abstract.

Vigil, J.M. (2009). A socio-relational framework of sex differences in the expression of emotion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32 (5), 375 -390.

Zhivotovskaya, E. (2008). Smile and Others Smile with You: Health Benefits, Emotional Contagion, and Mimicry. Positive Psychology News Daily.


The happy couple: Bride, you may kiss by e3000

Equally happy?:  Promenade in the rain by seanmcgrath

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