There’s a big difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Many people can spend hours, even days alone and never feel lonely. Other times, you might be in the middle of a crowd, but still feel isolated and lonely. So, what’s the difference?

While we can’t eliminate individual variability, it turns out that one big factor is smiling. People who don’t smile in response to others’ smiles, it turns out, were more likely to be lonely. While this is, again, personally variable, it can also be acquired. People can get out of the habit of emulating others because they don’t spend enough time around others, or sometimes they stop sharing smiles because they are ashamed of the appearance of their smile. 

A group of friends playing Jenga at a kitchen table. A new smile can avoid loneliness.

A Small, Preliminary Study

This insight comes from an insightful, but early study that looks at the relationship between people’s ability to spontaneously mimic the smiles of others in a small sample of students at the University of California, San Diego. In the study, 35 students were asked to fill out questionnaires that measured loneliness, depression, and extraversion. Students then had electrodes attached to the zygomaticus major muscles and the corrugator supercilii. The electrodes measured the activity in these muscles, similar to the electromyograph we use to measure muscle tension in TMJ. The zygomaticus  are cheek muscles key to smiling, while the corrugators are involved in frowning. 

All students were asked to rate the feelings in video clips of men and women making facial expressions of anger, fear, joy, and sadness. 

The Origins of Empathy

One of the mechanisms that helps people feel what others feel is a spontaneous mimicry of the expressions they see. When we see a person making an expression, we make that expression ourselves in imitation. Because feelings come in part from the actions of our facial muscles, we don’t just understand the feelings we see, we feel them, too. This is one of the foundations of empathy. 

There were no significant differences in the ability of students to rate the expressions they saw. They could all objectively identify when the video clip showed happiness or sadness. However, there was a difference in the way their faces responded to the video. People who were identified as lonely via the questionnaires were less likely to spontaneously smile or frown in response to the videos than those who didn’t indicate they were lonely. 

Researchers verified that lonely people were perfectly capable of smiling when asked to, and they smiled spontaneously in response to nature videos that didn’t feature people (which also made non-lonely people smile). Therefore researchers proposed that an inability to automatically emulate another person’s smile contributed to loneliness. Not only does it keep people from feeling happy in the presence of others, but it can send an antisocial signal that then causes others to disconnect from them. 

Don’t Let Yourself Forget How to Smile

It might seem an impossible thing: forgetting how to smile, but it’s something we hear often from patients seeking cosmetic dentistry. They tell us how they’ve been suppressing their smile for so many years, that they feel they don’t know how to smile, they’ve forgotten how to smile, or even that they don’t have a smile. 

As this study shows, the consequences of this could be very serious. Smiling is not just about showing off your pearly whites, it’s about establishing and maintaining social relationships. When you aren’t able to smile spontaneously in response to others, that’s when you start to get isolated and lonely. 

Fortunately, you don’t have to keep suppressing your smile. Cosmetic dentistry can address the concerns that make you feel you have to hide your smile. If you have discolored, damaged, or even missing teeth, a smile makeover can restore your smile with teeth whitening, dental crowns, or dental implants. You can have a smile that you don’t have to suppress. You can let yourself smile along with others, comfortably and happily. 

Looking for Cosmetic Dentistry in Rockland County?

Are you unhappy with the appearance of your smile? Are you looking for a beautiful smile you’ll be proud to show off? Please contact Rockland County cosmetic dentist Dr. Mark Dunayer at B & D Dental Excellence in West Nyack. He can help you understand your options and get you started on the path to a new, beautiful smull. Please call (845) 627-7645 today to schedule your appointment.