The Thinking 

The Amazing Trend in Smiles

December 11, 2015



RESEARCHERS at the University of California, Berkeley, and Brown, have conducted an extremely important study. They have analyzed over 37,000 senior yearbooks from 1905 to 2013, carefully measuring the depth of smiles in yearbook portraits over time, The Washington Post reports. They did all this to find out what we, at this obscure website, found out a long time ago, without any grants or employing anyone: People smile much more than they once did. The smile, in fact, is mandatory.

“[H]appiness has replaced seriousness as the default emotion for photography, and for portraiture in general,” Jeff Guo writes.

Today, we mock portraits that look too intense or self-serious or vain. It’s hard to imagine that a century ago, what many people found ridiculous was the smile.


“In the fine arts a grin was only characteristic of peasants, drunkards, children, and halfwits, suggesting low class or some other deficiency,” [Historian Christina] Kotchemidova writes, citing research from historian Fred Schroeder.

Shallowness has been often blamed here, but a dentist speculated that the rise of the smile was due to advances in his field. Why did George Washington look so serious? He had bad teeth. Another reader, Jeff W., said socialism leads to all smiles all the time. He wrote:

I believe that in a happiness-worshiping culture, a person who admits to being unhappy and has no one to blame for it is committing an offense against the reigning idolatry.

Christianity is a religion of self-denial and duty. “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23). Liberals put happiness at the top of their value system, and they also believe that happiness is obtained through money and sex. Those are the things they always focus on. In their world view, the main cause of unhappiness in the world is bad people (conservatives) who are getting in the way of sharing the wealth and who are also forcing their repressive sexual morality on others.

I am inclined to blame advertising. The smile is everywhere in ads and it makes people feel that there is something wrong with seriousness. Now that everyone has a phone camera, smiles are even more pervasive. Smiles are good, except in excess.

— Comments —

Lydia Sherman writes:

The smiling generation has also been a very rude one. Some of your audience may be dated enough (old) to remember the command to smile. Anyone whose face was set in a thoughtful or serious pose was a target for the smile-police. Young smart-mouthed people found it their duty to say “Smile!” This began in the 1970’s as I remember, but may have been earlier. Many people were startled, unwilling victims of this cheeky command.

I had to explain to several smile-on-demand people that my happiness did not require a constant smile; in fact, my relaxed, unsmiling face was more an indication of contentment. I do not go up to other people and say, “You do not seem very happy. I notice you do not smile very much.” Our parents did not teach us to say this, but they did teach us to mind our own business and not get close to someone and demand a smile.

Laura writes:

I’m sure some people are on anti-depressants because they can never please the smile police.

Sven writes:

Allegedly, one gets yelled at for smiling in an official US Marine Corps portrait.

I remember adults often telling me to smile when I was a boy, and it rather annoyed me. Life is hard for serious children, and increasingly, serious adults.

Ed writes:

I also have childhood memories of adults telling me to smile in photo sessions and finding it annoying as Sven commented. I think I’ll try not smiling in photographs as Tim suggests. I’ve already acquired a reputation for “living in the past”. Last year when a friend wanted to
hear “some ’80s music” I played some of Haydn’s String Quartets (Op 33), published in the 1780s, he was surprised I had such music readily at hand.

Rose writes:

Bravo, Ed! I like the way you think music from the 1780’s.

My favorite picture of my grandmother (the way I remember her) is a black-and-white portrait from about 1960. Her expression is calm and relaxed. There is the barest hint of a smile, but it isn’t forced.

Thirty years later, I have a year-old daughter. The four generations of women sit for a portrait. Well, the photographer must have been one of the “smile police,” because my grandmother’s face has a most unattractive grin.

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