A genuine smile is scientifically proven to make you appear more attractive and trustworthy. But a fake or inauthentic smile can have the opposite effect.
Smiling at the wrong time, using certain facial microexpressions, or smiling without your eyes could make you seem cold or awkward.
Learning to smile better can help you improve your interactions and make people feel more comfortable around you. Here are 9 simple ways to uplevel your grin.
9 Tips to Smile Better
Curving up the sides of your mouth and sharing a genuine smile comes naturally to most people. But sometimes, smiling can feel awkward or even forced.
Whether you’re doing a business deal or having a deep conversation with someone you care about, you can harness the power of social psychology to smile better.
#1 Use muscle memory for what a natural smile feels like
The art of a genuine smile comes down to muscle memory. Next time you throw back your head with laughter or reunite with an old friend, note what that smile feels like.
Visually, the most genuine smiles have a few commonalities:
- “Crows feet” wrinkles near the eyes (the “Duchenne” smile)
- Raised cheekbones
- Corners of the mouth curve upwards
- Smile lines around the nose and mouth
Physically, you can feel your face muscles shift when you smile naturally:
- Eyes slightly squinted
- Cheeks muscles engaged somewhat (but not too tense)
- Lips spread out
- Partially exposed teeth and gums
- Relaxed jaw
Action Tip: Look in a mirror or snap a photo whenever you feel like you are smiling your most genuine smile. Notice how specific muscle groups look and feel when you feel your happiest. Later on, dissect that photo to see if you recognize any of the above characteristics.
#2 Analyze Smiles in Photos
Researchers have found that facial mimicry plays a large role in how people perceive authentic smiles. Looking at photos of genuine versus fake smiles triggers your brain to produce similar expressions.
For example, your smile in a beach vacation photo with your loved one is probably a big toothy grin with “crows feet” lined by your eyes and raised mouth corners.
In a photo with your colleagues at work, you may have a more rigid posture and less upturn of the cheeks.
Similarly, a photo of politicians at a government event likely looks stiff and unnatural. Even expert publicity figures like the Obamas and Trumps reveal their discomfort in this photo. Notice their rigid posture and exaggerated expressions.
Often posed photos are a great way to recognize forced smiles, whereas candid pictures can catch people in their most genuine happy state.
Look at these photos and see if you can spot why certain smiles appear more fake than others:
Fake or Forced Smiles:
#3 Think About Things That Make You Happy
If you want to appear more genuine and joyful when you smile, try thinking of someone or something that makes you happy.
Although you can “fake it till you make it,” forcing a smile in some situations can make you nervous, uncomfortable, untrustworthy, or even fearful.
Instead of faking a half-smile, you can practice expressing a full genuine smile by harnessing the power of your memory.
For example, if you have a happy memory of the day you brought home your first puppy, think of that puppy when it comes time to smile in social situations. You could also visualize your favorite vacation spot, you and your friends laughing at a hilarious joke or a sentimental item.
This is basically the “Expecto Patronum” way of smiling.
Avoid thinking of bittersweet memories that make you feel too nostalgic. Otherwise, sadness could tinge your smile.
The most genuine smiles come from thinking of happy and lighthearted things.
#4 Learn to Smile with Your Eyes
Whether you’re wearing a mask or not, smiling with your eyes is crucial to conveying kindness and positivity.
Tyra Banks coined the word “smizing” long before the pandemic, and scientists have been studying this phenomenon since the 19th century!
They have found that the orbicularis oculi muscle contraction in the eyelids is the key distinguisher between genuine smiles and fake, non-enjoyment smiles.
Engaging the eyelids and smiling with your eyes is actually quite simple:
- Think about a happy memory from above
- Smile with your whole face
- Slightly squint your eyes (lower your eyelids)
- Notice how the muscles next to your temples lift upward
- Focus on the subtle “crows feet” wrinkles in the outer corners of your eyes
- Hold the upper part of your face in place
- Relax your mouth
Keep in mind that your eyes should not be too wide. In fact, revealing the upper white area of your eyes can portray fear instead of warmth and comfort.
The most important key to smiling with your eyes is the slight squint and upturn of the corners.
Learn more about the role of your eyes in facial expressions in our Definitive Guide to Reading Microexpressions.
#5 Raise Your Chest and Posture When Smiling
The art of smiling encompasses the full range of body language. As you smile, notice what the rest of your body does.
If you smile while slumped over, your closed-off demeanor may portray nervousness.
When you stand up taller and practice proper posture, you appear more confident and friendly. A slightly raised chest and subtle lean forward show that you are interested in what someone says.
Add a friendly wave or extend your open palm for a handshake. Open hands signal trust and kindness to help you make a great first impression.
#6 Practice in the Mirror
As silly as it may seem, practicing your smile in the mirror can help you nail down the muscle memory of different types of smiles.
To practice smiling in the mirror, try to avoid thinking of self-criticisms about your appearance.
Instead, focus on the actual musculature in your face:
- Face your mirror in a private place
- Begin with a neutral expression and take a deep breath
- Turn away from the mirror and think of something that makes you happy
- Turn back to the mirror and examine the reflection of your face
- What do your eyes look like?
- How do your cheeks look and feel?
- What does your forehead look like?
- Turn away again to try eliciting a different type of smile (for example, think of an awkward situation) and take note of the differences in your expression
- Practice several times with different thoughts and memories
- Focus on the feeling of your most genuine smile by closing your eyes and doing a mental scan over each area of your face
#7 Recognize Different Types of Smiles
Once you start trying to smile better, you might find it easier to notice when people are expressing dampened, forced, embarrassed, or sarcastic smiles.
French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne first identified 18 different types of smiles in 1862. Interestingly, only 6 of these smiles correlate with genuine happiness.
All smiles use the zygomaticus major muscles around the corners of your mouth. In contrast, fake or forced smiles don’t always engage the muscles around the eyes.
Research shows that smiles perceived as the most amused and joyful have a few things in common:
- Open mouth
- Larger spread up the cheeks
- Longer onset time (the smile gradually grows)
- Longer lasting (there is some evidence that quick, short smiles are perceived as nervous or embarrassed)
- Head leaned slightly forward or tilted
- Activation of the Orbicularis oculi (AU 6) eyelid muscles
- Symmetrical face (a sideways or asymmetrical grin, especially when the lips are closed, can portray sarcasm or sneering)
#8 Practice Good Dental Hygiene
Not everyone is gifted with perfect teeth. However, caring for your teeth can be a great way to make your grin more welcoming. Psychological studies show that straighter, whiter teeth are more psychologically attractive, possibly due to the evolutionary mating advantages associated with a healthier mouth.
Practicing daily dental care and investing in a quality dentist and dental practice could help improve your smile in social situations.
#9 Smile More Often
We are not huge proponents of fake smiling, BUT research has found that smiling can lower stress levels, bolster your immune system, and even lengthen your life.
Moreover, smiling magnetizes people towards you. If you want to be more popular and sociable, remember that seeing a smile triggers the part of the human brain associated with rewards.
Even if you don’t feel like smiling, you can still reap all the benefits of a grin. Researchers have found that forcing a fake smile still lowers your heart rate and reduces stress. You obviously don’t want to fake a smile all the time, but practicing a grin for small daily interactions never hurts.
Action Step: Practice exchanging a grin with strangers on the street or smiling to greet the cashier when you check out at the grocery store. At the very least, a forced smile is better than a frown. With time, these smiles can become more genuine and kind.
Bonus Tip: Use a Slow “Savor Smile”
Use a “savor smile” during conversation to show that you are genuinely interested in what someone has to say and happy to be there with them. Remember that quick smiles often feel forced or fake. They seem to wipe from people’s faces as fast as they appear!
Instead, take your time to grin. To increase your charisma during a conversation, take at least half a second to slowly form a smile. Read more about how Dwayne Johnson uses the savor smile to appear more charming.
Action Tip: In Vanessa Van Edwards’ latest book, Cues, you can learn how facial cues change people’s perception of you and master the art of cues to be more charismatic and captivating in communication.
How to Smile During Conversations
One of the keys to being a great conversationalist is sharing a warm smile in your very first impression. Smiling signals others to portray you as a friend rather than a foe.
However, you don’t want to plaster an awkward smile on your face the entire time you talk. Smiling is most natural during an introduction and goodbyes. During the conversation, don’t feel the need to smile as you talk.
Instead, notice your expression while listening to another person talk. You can use head nods, slightly squinted eyelids (to indicate concentration), and a more relaxed smile to indicate you are listening to what they have to say.
If you want to improve your conversation skills, pay attention to your body language as you approach somebody:
- Take a deep breath and exhale to relax your body
- Roll your shoulders down and back
- Keep your hands visible (to portray trust)
- Think of something positive or happy
- Smile when you see someone you want to talk to
- Don’t force a smile while you are speaking
- Nod your head or smile while listening to them talk
How to Smile for Pictures
To avoid looking like a “deer in the headlights” when the camera flashes, try practicing some relaxation techniques to appear more laid back when you smile in photos:
- Before the photo, take a moment to inhale and exhale through your nose deeply
- Move around, and shake your arms and shoulders to loosen your muscles
- Exercise your facial muscles with a few exaggerated expressions like raising your eyebrows or tightening and then relaxing the jaw with some goofy faces
- Look away from the camera a few moments before the click
- Use the tips above to think of something joyful
- Then, turn your head towards the camera, but look at the person behind it
- Try to smile symmetrically with your whole face (a sideways smile can accidentally show contempt rather than happiness)
- Touch the tip of your tongue lightly on the back of your teeth
- Don’t say “cheese.”
Pro Tip: One of the best ways to get better at smiling in photos is to practice with your selfies. Check out the article How to Take the Perfect Selfie: 10 Easy Rules to Follow.
How to Smile Like a Model
Models are essentially professional smilers, but their smiles often intend to look sensual or relaxed rather than overtly happy. Models don’t typically smile too hard or show their teeth, instead opting for a photogenic grin.
For example, Tyra Banks is “smizing” with a sexy, laidback grin for a runway photo. Notice how her smile is confident and symmetrical for a camera-ready vibe.
Bonus Tip: Whether you want to smile like a model or just look nice for a photo, remember that a symmetrical smile is more friendly and approachable. Sideways smiles can imply sassiness or even contempt. Notice the difference between Tyra’s friendly model smile above versus the sassy asymmetrical grin below.
In this example, you can see male model Brad Kroenig and his sons posing for a fashion brand. Notice how they appear to be subtly grinning, yet they aren’t overtly smiling. This type of smile is softening the mouth, cheeks, and gaze. Few facial muscles are engaged except for a slight upturn of the mouth corners.
Lastly, examine Kate Hudson’s softened open-mouth smile. You can tell that she is genuinely enjoying herself and appears very calm (despite the paparazzi!) She has small “crow’s feet” lines by her eyes, and her cheeks are subtly engaged, but her smile isn’t over-exaggerated. She is also looking to the side of the camera rather than directly through the lens. This type of “model smile” is great for profile photos.
Smiling like a model is far different from smiling in daily conversation or grinning for an exuberant photo. Nonetheless, anyone can smile like a model once they get comfortable:
- Begin by rolling back your shoulders and standing up straight
- Let your shoulder blades settle down your back
- Exhale again to relax into your posture
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths
- Open and squint your eyes slightly, looking slightly to the side of the camera
- Bring your chin slightly upward
- Gently place your tongue on the back of your teeth
- Visualize something or someone positive
- Let your cheekbones lift upward as you grin, optionally show your teeth or keep your lips together
How to Spot a Fake Smile
Fake smiles are mostly recognized by un-squinted (fully open) eyes, absence of “crow’s feet,” and visible bottom teeth.
Some people are masters at concealing their true emotions, but neurologists have found that fake smiles bust through the facades with a few key clues:
- Eyes do not squint
- Whites of eyes are showing on the top and bottom
- There are no wrinkles in the eyes
- Bottom teeth are visible (indicating forced lip opening)
- Short duration (fake smiles tend to be “flashed”)
- A quick movement of the face (amused and joyful smiles take time to form)
- Cheeks appear tense or tight
- Sideways or asymmetrical mouth
People fake smile because they feel nervous, uncomfortable, awkward, or obligated to smile in a certain scenario. The most obvious fake smiles are plastered on the faces of cashiers and food service workers who have exhausted themselves tending to customers all day long.
They may also fake smiles when caught off-guard for a photo or while trying to mask a bad day.
Look at Britney Spears in this photo. You can tell she is fake smiling because her mouth appears more rectangular than smile-shaped. Her eyes look blank and don’t have “crow’s feet” lines in the corners. The cheeks are tense, and her bottom teeth are showing.
Sometimes a forced smile indicates feeling bitter against someone who just insulted you. In this case, the smile may be exaggerated, a short duration, and accompanied by a sarcastic head nod:
Regardless of the reason, you can learn to spot a fake smile from a mile away by noticing widened eyes, the tension in the cheeks, and over-exposed lower teeth.
Key Takeaways: 9 Ways to Smile Better
If you want to make more friends and professional connections, mastering the art of your facial expressions can help you come across as more friendly and trustworthy.
Embracing your unique smile comes down to muscle memory and understanding the psychology behind each grin. Improving your smile is as simple as practicing and observing:
- Next time you feel genuinely excited, snap a photo and memorize what a natural smile feels like. Muscle memory is key to perfecting your smile.
- Smile as often as you can. Practice with strangers on the street, cashiers, or other people you encounter daily.
- Analyze smiles in photos of yourself and other people. Notice how forced, or posed smiles tend to be accompanied by tension in the face and less eye squinting. Candid shots often capture more genuine smiles with laid-back body language and upturned mouth corners.
- When you’re in a crunch to smile, think about something that makes you happy. It could be a funny memory or a mental image of your puppy the first day you brought him home. This is basically the “Expecto Patronum” way of smiling and is sure to elicit a more authentic grin.
- Learn to smile with your eyes by thinking of your joyful memory, slightly squinting your eyes, and feeling the muscles near your temples activate upward.
- Don’t forget to accompany every smile with happy, relaxed body language. Practice good posture by rolling your shoulders back and using a friendly wave or reaching for a handshake to reveal the palms of your hands.
- Practice smiling in the mirror by first looking away, thinking of happy memory, and then glancing back at the mirror to see your natural smile.
- Recognize different types of smiles in your daily life. Notice how a waitress’ smile may appear forced, or a teenager’s smirk may appear sarcastic and annoyed, whereas a child with their grandparent probably shows a genuine, joyful smile.
- Practice good dental hygiene. Research has shown that whiter and straighter teeth are psychologically attractive because they appear healthier.
If you want to read other people better and understand how they read your facial expressions, check out The Definitive Guide to Reading Microexpressions.