Al Batt: Who was the first person to smile in a photo?

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

The day had a lot of moving parts and one too many unmoving parts.

Al Batt

Someone, who happened to be me, stubbed his toe. If I’d meant to have done that, I’d have gotten an A+ on the assignment. I was up early to avoid sloth when the leg of the bed initiated an attack and forced me to defend myself.

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I hadn’t put hammer to stone and created a masterpiece the day before, but I’d watched goats eat poison ivy. Who says rural life isn’t exciting? I hadn’t stubbed a toe for a long time, but being exhausted from goat-watching, I’d ended my winning streak. I tried to smile.

Wayne State University in Detroit analyzed the smiles of 230 Major League Baseball players on their official photographs from 1952 to determine how positivity influences longevity. Researchers assessed player smiles—categorizing them as “no smile,” “partial smile” or

“Duchenne smile.” Duchenne smiles are named after the 19th-century French neurologist who defined the genuine smile. The study found a link between authentic smiling and longer life expectancy. The sullen players with no smiles lived an average of 72.9 years; those with partial or fake smiles lived an average of 75 years; and those with big, authentic grins lived an average of 79.9 years.

How do you tell a fake smile? We’ve all used them. As a kid, I displayed one when I received underwear as a Christmas gift. Genuine smiles engage muscles near the corners of the mouth and around the eyes — the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi. Fake smiles exercise only mouth muscles.

After accounting for other factors that tend to predispose people to longevity, such as education and good health, the researchers found an even firmer link between strength of smile and length of life. People who didn’t smile had a 50% chance of surviving to 80, while those with Duchenne smiles had a 70% chance of surviving to 80. The research concluded those who smile genuinely in photographs may be happier than those with less intense smiles, making them more likely to experience the health benefits of happiness, which has been linked with lower levels of stress and a reduction in heart disease.

I wonder how much batting average, earned run average, passing gas and team success affected a player’s smile, but there’s no denying the feel-good power of a happy facial expression. We’re born with the ability to smile, yet we smile less as we age.

A study by that noted researcher Source Unknown found children smile an average of 400 times per day and adults 15 times. Smiling not only offers a mood boost but helps our bodies release cortisol and endorphins, which provide many health benefits. But wait, there’s more. People who smile appear more likable, courteous and competent while tending to be more productive at work and making more money.

Want to smile more? The first step is easy, start your day with a smile. The second step is difficult, smile after stubbing a toe. Third step, hang around with those who smile. Smiling is contagious.

World Smile Day is celebrated on the first Friday of October. Harvey Ball, who developed the iconic smiley image on a yellow background, created the holiday. World Smile Day’s slogan is “Do an act of kindness — help one person smile!”

You need to smile more if whenever you do grin, someone asks if you’re feeling OK. Reroute your life. Flex your smile muscles by trying a couple of smile challenges. Jot down 10-20 things you’re not accountable for and smile because you’re not the operator of a scoop shovel removing the natural exhaust from an elephant enclosure. When you’re in line, smile as you do when a police officer pulls over the moron who passed you.

I looked at a lot of elderly photographs in several historical museums. None of the subjects were smiling. People didn’t live as long in those good old days. Maybe it was because they didn’t smile.

Who was that crazy nonconformist who first smiled in a photo? I know who it was. It was that goofy guy who stuck a forefinger and middle finger up behind another person’s head as if they were the bunny ears of a photobombing rabbit.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.