From stress relief to good grades, grinning in a school setting has a raft of benefits – even if you’re faking it, discovers Carly Page. Which is great news if your default facial expression is less than happy
“Smile! It might never happen.”
He says it to you as you pass. You weigh up your options: karate kick to the head? Withering comedy put-down? A big, exaggerated sarcastic smile and a swift one-finger salute?
You opt for a pathetic attempt at a fake smile and you scuttle off to class. You’re not stupid – using any of the other three options on your headteacher would likely have been career-limiting. And anyway, you’re used to this sort of thing from him: he likes a teacher to be smiling and you’re one of the unlucky people who has what is colloquially known as “resting bitch face”.
Surprisingly, this rather vulgar phrase actually has some truth behind it: both men and women really can have a resting face that makes them look irritable and downright miserable. A US study from 2014 (bit.ly/FacialBias) found that our “resting” face can be broadly interpreted as “angry” or “happy” and that people make judgements about us based on that first impression. The study termed the process of that judgement as “face-ism”.
But is the headteacher above really being face-ist? Or is he just doing his job – is smiling an essential part of being a teacher, something that is key to building the strong relationships we know are key to learning? And if that is the case, can those teachers who have a resting face that is as far from a smile as the government is from communications clarity just stick a fake smile in place instead?
Well, it’s certainly true that an outward expression of happiness by displaying a smile is important – particularly in the classroom.
The significance of smiling in a school environment has long been documented. For example, one study concluded that smiling can help teachers to manage, encourage and show empathy towards students. Other researchers have suggested it’s important that teachers smile, to teach their pupils how to do so as, for many, smiling requires direct instruction and practice.
Anecdotally, there is also strong evidence to encourage smiling, as Ben Evans, headmaster at Windlesham House School in West Sussex, explains. “The old adage ‘never smile before Christmas’ – given as sage advice to newly qualified teachers starting their careers – has never been more anachronistic,” he says. “A smile is one of the simplest but most effective actions any of us can make and can be transformational in its use, especially in a school setting.”
“In schools, where children can feel anxious, under pressure or out of place, whatever their age, a smile is instant reassurance and can quickly put people at ease,” Evans says. “It allows children to develop confidence and high self-esteem, and ensures that they feel safe, comfortable and understood. This leads to greater social development, academic progress and personal success.”
One of the main reasons that a smile puts others at ease is its contagious nature, which has been well documented in numerous studies. One such study, carried out by social psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, found that people often automatically compose their facial expressions in order to emotionally connect with another person.
For instance, you may find yourself in a group of people and spot your friend looking sad. Without realising it, you will “put on” a sad face as well, to connect and empathise with them. The same is true for smiling, thanks to a part of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex. When you see someone else smiling, your orbitofrontal cortex is activated, which processes sensory rewards. So when a person catches someone else smiling, they feel rewarded and smile back because of the good feeling.
“When we smile at someone, they are likely to smile back, then go on to smile at another person,” explains Rachel Chin, a clinical psychologist at Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust. “This is beautifully illustrated with children. We may notice we feel happier around children because they tend to smile more and we reciprocate this.”
She adds that “there are many benefits to smiling in school settings – most significantly, it relates to supporting the development of trusting relationships, increasing mood and wellbeing, and rewarding and reinforcing behaviours”.
This does not seem to be positive news for those of us with a face tuned to “and what?” most of the time. However, psychiatrist Karen Gaye Graham, who specialises in understanding the underlying causes of stress and anxiety, explains that if these particular teachers are happy and content, then the period of time they will be in the “resting” position will be minimised.
“If our mind isn’t busy or filled with problems, while we aren’t necessarily smiling, it doesn’t take much for a little smile to be triggered by a positive thought or feeling,” she says. “Research suggests that if we don’t smile or laugh or joke around as much as we used to, there are likely to be many social issues involved.”
Smiling can actually be a big part of the solution to having a low mood, she adds.
“Encouraging smiling is an antidote to the pressures,” she says. “Firstly, it’s contagious so it’s a win for making good friends. Secondly, chemicals are released in the body that makes them feel happier. Thirdly, it’s attractive. Fourthly, it’s motivating.”
The eyes have it
Clearly, smiling is rather important. But if you can’t muster a genuine smile, will a fake smile have the same impact, both on you and on others?
Unfortunately, Graham says a fake smile is quite easy to spot. “A genuine smile is the outward expression that reflects an inner state of enjoyment or being at ease,” she says. “Our eyes are always involved, too. So if the muscles around the eyes don’t respond in harmony with the muscles around the mouth, the smile isn’t authentic. So the tell-tale sign that a smile is fake or forced is when the eyes don’t gently crease. Even babies know that it’s a lie because they react to it with concern or distress rather than pleasure.”
Although a fake smile can often be easy to spot, that’s not to say it’s something that should be avoided. Various studies have suggested that forcing a smile can “trick” your brain into boosting your mood and happiness level, while researchers at the University of Kansas published findings that show smiling – even if not genuine – helps to reduce the body’s response to stress and lowers the heart rate in high-pressure situations.
So smiling is important for teachers – even those of us with a resting face that is as happy as a child in detention can manage to smile frequently, given the right stimulus. What’s more, if we are having a bad day, then faking it is entirely an OK thing to do in a school, and it might even make you feel better.
So, all together now, after three: pinch those cheeks, squint those eyes and show those teeth. Aah, that’s better.
Carly Page is a freelance journalist
This article originally appeared in the 6 November 2020 issue under the headline “Always smile before Christmas”