It seems your chosen world view has a lot do with how long you get to keep this view.
A curious little study out of Wayne State University looked at old pictures of baseball players and rated their smiles. They were sorted into groups with nonexistent smiles, a little smile, or a full 100-watt display of their pearly whites.
Being scientists, they spent a lot of time looking these people up and finding out everything they could about their health, starting with making sure they were alive. Most of the well-known risk factors for early death, like obesity, hypertension and smoking, were standardized. That means they fiddled with the groups until they all looked alike for common risk factors, and only differed by smile factors.
So far this sounds scientifically reasonable.
And the researchers found good stuff, at least for the smilers. No smile got you an average of 73 years, a little smile 75 years, and a big smile 80 years. The average life expectancy for people born at this time was 78 years. So in effect, a frown robs you of five years of normal life, and a smile gives you two bonus years.
Now how much fun can the years 79 and 80 be anyway? This used to be my response when well-meaning people criticized my “Halloween Cigar”. Of course, you would have to ask a 79-year-old, but you could easily spend 2 years doing all the bad things you had to stop to get there.
This smile study was not an outlier. Some pretty good research has been done on attitude and health, attitude and marriage, and even attitude and cancer survival. People with good attitudes simply do better; it’s a scientific fact.
Interestingly, these pictures in the Wayne State study were posed, not candid shots.
Presumably someone said, “Smile for the camera” or “Say ‘cheese’” – or something like that. These young players picked “the look” they wanted to show the world. We don’t know if the smilers actually were people who smiled a lot, or were just better at following directions.
So the million dollar question is: do you get the bonus if you make yourself smile? Fake it until you make it? That’s what we all wonder when we read this kind of stuff.
That is a surprisingly hard question to answer. How might you make yourself a smiling person? Perhaps medicine has an answer; better living through pharmacology, smiles from Prozac.
There is precious little evidence that Prozac and its friends will statistically make you live longer. However, untreated depression dramatically shortens your life.
How about psychotherapy, a little head adjustment until you smile? Talking to someone often helps when you are feeling blue. There just isn’t good evidence that people utilizing psychotherapy live longer.
And this is not to pooh-pooh anti-depressants or psychotherapy because both are life-saving therapy for many people.
A lot of thinking has gone into the question of why that single photographic smile makes you live longer. That’s a difficult area to study with hard science. People have suggested that smilers have more friends, a better social support system, and better marriages. But smiling for a picture may just be a short-hand way of asking if someone’s basically OK.
The problem ultimately is a lot of us don’t consider ourselves smilers, but we’re otherwise pretty normal and getting along OK. We certainly don’t feel the acute need for Prozac or psychotherapy.
If asked, we would probably smile for a picture. So, who knows, that may get us the bonus years after all.