Turns out your smiley Facebook friends really are happier than you

Take a quick look at your current Facebook profile picture. Are you posing alone? Is is a boisterous group picture? A professional-looking headshot? Is there duckface involved? 

Whether you’re teetering with a Coors Light in your hand or sitting serenely in a tasteful pose, a new study says there’s only one thing that really matters: Are you smiling?

According to researchers at the University of Virginia, the intensity of smiles in Facebook profile pictures can accurately predict the well-being of undergraduates over the course of their college careers. 

“One implication of my paper is that you can get a fairly accurate indication by looking at people’s Facebook photos based on how intensely they’re smiling in the photos how good those people are socially,” says one of the researchers, post-doctoral instructor Patrick Seder. The paper, titled “Intensity of Smiling in Facebook Photos Predicts Future Life Satisfaction” explains that it took authentic looking photos with smiles (no “jokey” pictures allowed) to make these predictions. 

“You’re making a choice to continue to endorse that representation of yourself as part of your public persona on Facebook.”

The project takes inspiration from an earlier study based on yearbook photos. The previous study was done by researchers at a college in California who analyzed college yearbook graduation photos from 1959 and 1960. The photo subjects’ agreed to complete follow-up surveys they’d receive in the mail every eight to 10 years so researchers could assess what the predictive potential of those college photos.

However, the study didn’t look at how the initial “well-being” assessments compared to the results down the line, so they didn’t map how the subjects’ happiness levels changed over time. 

“What would’ve been ideal was if they had looked at the initial well-being reports those women gave and then compared them to the reports of changes over time,” says Seder. “But they didn’t do that, they just looked at the overall score.”

So Seder and the rest of the research team decided to do just that – with a little help from today’s yearbook photo: Facebook profile pictures. 

The researchers looked at two groups of Facebook users, taking their first assessments in 2005 and 2006. They selected users were freshman in their first semester at the University of Virginia, and had profile picture photographs that could be analyzed for smile intensity. They measured the intensity of the sample groups’ smiles after taking them through a series of tests to gauge their general well-being and levels of extroversion. The researchers checked back in with their subjects at the end of their college careers and looked at their contentment levels again.

They found that the students who had the most intense smiles in their profile pictures during the first semester of school reported more happiness both in that first semester as well as 3.5 years later. They also found that they could predict whether these students would increase their reported well-being based on the smile intensity.

To boil it down, the students with bigger grins in Facebook photos posted at the beginning of college reported more life satisfaction both during the time period they posted the photos, and at the end of their college careers.

Non-Duchenne and Duchenne smile

A. Non-Duchenne smile B. Duchenne smile

But how do you determine the intensity of one’s smile, exactly? The researchers used a procedure to code the grins in the photos based on two muscle units on the face. One of the muscle units produces raised cheeks and squinting, while the other creates a smile by lifting the corners of the mouth. These two muscle movements were graded on a scale of one to five by the team and then added together. Each researcher graded the photos individually, and they used the mean score as a final intensity indicator.

“We wanted to just find naturalistic photos. Now, in terms of whether we could tell if people were faking smiles, that’s a complicated question. In psych literature there’s something called a Duchenne smile, named after a guy named Duchenne, it’s a term used to describe a genuine smile, an authentic smile. And it’s presumed based on a good bit on research from a lot of respected researchers, that you couldn’t fake an authentic smile, that researchers could tell because your mouth and eye muscles that would be constricting would not be of maximum intensity,” Seder says. But Seder mentioned that new research indicates as many as 60 percent of people can fake a Duchenne smile. So there’s no way to know for sure whether people are giving genuine smiles of happiness and amusement, or if they’re simply in a pose during their picture. 

It doesn’t necessarily matter, though – the important thing wasn’t why the students were smiling, just that they were doing so with gusto. The intention wasn’t looked at, so some of the grinning students reporting robust life satisfaction may have been plotting the death of their neighbors’ cats while some of the more melancholy-looking students may have been generally amiable and benevolent people simply having a bummed-out moment.  

Seder believes the significance of this study is that students use profile pictures to represent themselves, and a smiling photo sends a different signal than a somber one. “If you look at the Facebook photos you have, you’re making choices with every photo whether to post it, and then once it’s there, every second or every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year, you’re allowing it to continue. You’re making a choice to continue to endorse that representation of yourself as part of your public persona on Facebook.” 

Do you smile because you’re happy or do you smile and become happy?

“Most people, there’s some variability in how they present to the world over time,” Seder says. He expressed interest in what the results would be if the research team had time to code every profile pictures from someone’s account over their undergraduate career and take the mean, noting that using more pictures may have resulted in even more accurate results. 

But why did these Facebook photos determine satisfaction years later? Of course, if all it took to become happy was a constant grin, we’d be a globe of people walking around with crazed Joker faces and continuous mirth. Things are more complicated than that, and they always will be.

Yet this study does show that smiles on social media can act as valuable signifiers about a person’s self-satisfaction. The paper gives two potential explanations for why big grins in Facebook photos might have a positive impact on your general well-being: First, they note that it is plausible that the way you appear in your Facebook photo has a connection with how you appear in real life, and smiling people tend to be happier than dour people.

Moreover, they cited other research that showed how people who smile are often perceived as more agreeable and emotionally stable, which means a Facebook smile could be a signal to others that you’re a fun person to be around – and thus, a Facebook smile could help you make friends, which would boost life satisfaction. “This type of ‘‘smile-as-approach-signal’’ strategy could prove to be especially beneficial when people are new to a social environment (e.g., in the first semester of college),” the study notes. 

The second potential explanation: the researchers noted that people who express positive emotions tend to elicit positive emotions in other people (in simpler terms, smiling is contagious). Since people value those who make them smile, a Facebook photo that reinforces the image of someone as a smiley, happy person could strengthen relationships. 

It’s a sort of “the chicken or the egg?” conundrum. Do you smile because you’re happy or do you smile and become happy? Either way, there’s a correlation. And since these researchers ran the test twice and got the same results, you’re probably better off playing it safe and deleting that sourpuss face profile picture. 

[Photo credit: Shutterstock

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