Want to look thinner and younger? UMKC research suggests that you smile

Research finds that a smile makes a person look younger and trimmer. As evidence, we offer Selena Gomez.
Research finds that a smile makes a person look younger and trimmer. As evidence, we offer Selena Gomez. TNS

Tired of looking old and fat?

Silly question, right? Unless you’re Selena Gomez, Jennifer Lopez or one of the sculpted Ryans — as in Reynolds or Gosling — it’s a pretty good bet that, yes, it’s always nice to look young and trim.

Recent research out of the University of Missouri-Kansas City might have a solution:


That’s right, just smile. When you smile, other people tend to see you as younger than if you are staring back with a neutral expression or frown. If you frown, you look heavier.

Those conclusions arise from two pieces of research out of UMKC’s department of psychology and the lab of Professor Seung-Lark Lim.

The age perception research, published in the March 30 edition of the journal Plos One, was led by Norah Hass, 25, now a third-year psychology doctoral student at the university.

Hass asked college students to sit in front of a computer and look at a range of images of male faces split into different age groups ranging from about 30 to 65. Some of the faces were smiling; others had neutral expressions.

The participants were then asked to judge the faces, within their age groups, as either “young” or “old.” What Hass found is that no matter the age group, happy, smiling faces were judged as “young” far more often than faces with neutral expressions. Likewise, neutral faces were seen as older in each age group than their happy counterparts.

“The take home is interesting,” Hass said in an interview, “in that maybe having a positive expression will make you look younger. We can see this very clear shift, of sad emotion versus happy emotion. Unless you’re trying to look old, I’d recommend you try not to look so sad and look happy.”

In April 2015, UMKC undergraduate psychology student Trent D. Weston, who has since graduated, was the lead author on work published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology.

As with Hass’ work, Weston asked college students to quickly judge the weight of people based on some 960 randomized faces that flashed on a computer screen. Some of the faces had neutral expressions; others looked sad.

The turn-that-frown-upside-down result: Sad faces tended to be judged as heavier.

Here’s another possible insight: If you want to be judged as attractive, it helps if other people are smiling your way, or at least not frowning at you.

In March, the journal Neuroscience Letters published work out of China in which participants were shown what they called a “target” face with a neutral expression. They were then shown other faces looking at that target face. In some cases, the other faces were smiling at the target face. In others, they were frowning or looking neutral.

The result: People are seen to be more attractive when other people looking at them are smiling.

Certainly, research has long shown that actually putting on a smile, forcing yourself to do so by just putting a pencil between your teeth, can actually elevate mood. Another study out of China this year showed the effect in women may be more pronounced than in men.

Then again, in the May issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin comes this bit of cautionary research out of the University of Bamberg in Germany.

There are times to show your happiness and times to keep it under wraps. The Germans performed three experimental studies using high school students. They manipulated different contests so some high school students far outperformed others.

In some cases, the winners were smiling and gleeful. In others, they “suppressed rather than expressed their positive emotions.”

It’s hardly surprising to find that when the winners kept their smiles to themselves, they were judged a lot more positively.

One lesson: Smiles help, but just know when.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler