Smile if you’re not going to get divorced

People who smiled in their yearbook photos are less likely to be divorced years later. That just in from the NY Times Year In Ideas.

The study authors wrote:

We posited that smiling behavior in photographs is potentially indicative of underlying emotional dispositions that have direct and indirect life consequences.

They also checked the pattern for other early-life photos, including candid shots, and the results were consistent with their expectations (for a 96%-White sample of university graduates). In light of recent news on research showing that smiles are clustered in social networks, that is not surprising:

People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.

Even Barbara Ehrenreich, who has sworn off the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking, has to admit:

At the risk of redundancy or even tautology, we can say that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be “positive,” certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad. (p. 2)

People’s mood affects those around them. You’d have to guess that might go for spouses, too.

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(We know a lot about things that don’t lead to divorce, too. For example, men who “dread the thought of an earthquake,” and those who are “always disgusted with the law when a criminal is freed through the arguments of a smart lawyer,” are less likely to be divorced [or at least they were in the 1970s in a population seeking psychiatric treatment.] On the other hand, extraversion and neuroticism may increase the odds of divorce.)

In summary, personality is related to divorce. The yearbook photo result is appealing not because it tells us something new about divorce. It doesn’t mean that if you decide to smile for your yearbook photo, you’re less likely to get divorced. (Though maybe those who can’t or won’t bring themselves to smile that day will also resist or fail at being happy on other important occasions.)

The news is intriguing because it tells us how much we can learn from a little information, if it’s the right information. The other day I tried to explain to a 5-year-old what “you can’t judge a book by its cover” means. I said it means you can’t tell how good a book is just by looking at the picture on the front. “Actually, Dad,” she said, “you can.” It’s not the best predictor of book quality, but it’s not bad information, either:

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