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Kamala Harris' Smile

How to tell if a smile is fake or authentic.

Kamala Harris has announced she is all in for 2020 and is running for president of the United States. She is one among many throwing their proverbial hats into the ring at a dizzying pace. There’s time enough to delve into the candidate's positions on the economy, Medicare, climate change, and the tax structure. But right now, what’s important is this—relatability and the almighty first impression, that fleeting, emotional response you inevitably have upon a first encounter. While the first impression is often subconscious, you can be certain it will quietly imprint all your future decisions and actions.

As Kamala Harris made her national debut on CNN’s Town Hall, so many said their first impression was "Hmmm, I like her smile." It radiated. Her eyes sparkled. The corners of her eyes crinkled. She laughed easily.

Whether you are pro, con, or indifferent to her candidacy or party, you want to smile back at her, right? Why is this?

Here’s why. We know that smiling is contagious. A smile forges powerful social bonds and is a dynamic booster of happiness—of both ours and others. It has the power to woo.

Smiling, quite simply, makes us happy. Scientists have shown that smiling for twenty seconds, even if you aren’t in the mood for it, will increase your happiness. The very act of smiling boosts levels of cortisol, dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins—all biochemical factors in happiness.

This chemical cascade creates a positive feedback loop of happiness as endorphins are produced and neuronal signals are transmitted to facial muscles that then send a signal back to the brain, producing even more endorphins.

Smiling first changes our own physiology and then the effect extends outward, spreading happiness to others. According to surveys, 62 percent of women feel a greater sense of well-being when they see others laugh or smile, as do 56 percent of men.

By dint of this, Kamala Harris generated a whole lot of well-being during her televised debut.

Smiling also eliminates stress levels by reducing the amount of cortisol circulating throughout the bloodstream. A shared smile generates positive emotions that have significant impact on health and psyche.

So Kamala, with her bright, crinkly-eyed smile, is also helping reduce stress as she radiates positivity to potential voters. Her smile entices voters because who doesn’t want more of this in their lives, right? This is not unlike Ronald Reagan, whose sunny demeanor and smiling eyes long ago wooed many across the partisan divide.

But you may be asking, don’t all candidates smile? Ah, but here’s the difference. Not all smiles are genuine, and we instinctively know if the smile directed at us is genuine or not and single factor influences how we feel and how we react.

Scientists have studied real and fake smiles and determined that the difference between them is quite physiological. Different muscle groups are used in fake smiling versus genuine smiling. All social smiles use the zygomaticus major, muscles that control the corners of the mouth and are responsible for the upward curve of a smile.

In a real smile, the extraocular muscles around the eye sockets engage—known as “smiling eyes” as in “Irish eyes are smiling.”

Did you know that's why we gaze into others’ eyes to see how they really feel, even if they are smiling. Our brains are comparing the geometry of a person’s face to a genuine smile from previous experience. You brain is comparing this single smile to the average template of smiling that you have abstracted across the years from various social interactions. Our minds then evaluate whether the smile real and whether it is generating a sense of true happiness.

In a real smile, the neuronal signals travel from the cortex to the brain stem and on down into the smiling muscles in the face. When these muscles engage, they send feedback to the brain, saying, “Hey, we’re happy!” This creates a cycle of happiness, stimulating the brain’s reward systems in a way that even chocolate, a well-regarded pleasure inducer, cannot match.

Genuine smiles forge familiarity, reduce uncertainty and generate trust. They result in meaningful connection—and this can happen across the air waves as well as in person.

So by these accounts, both Kamala Harris and Ronald Reagan's smiles were genuine. But here’s the thing, we really don’t need scientists to tell us this because as human beings we instinctively knew this by how they made us feel.

Political pundits have long theorized that the winning candidate is generally the one with whom you want to have a beer. That translates into who can you just sit with and chat about every day things. Who makes you feel comfortable? Who do you feel you can trust? And a measure of that is the one whose smile is authentic.

The prophecy of "having a beer" as a metric of political success may require a slight tweak now that the presidential field is chock-a-block with female candidates. But it all comes down to the smile.

A first impression is that Kamala Harris' smile is real and it invites something similar.

I bet we could talk about immigration, the national debt, gun violence, and, dollars to donuts, her smile hints that we could also talk about hair products and The Crown.

So as more and more candidates make their debut, look beyond their lips. Before you evaluate their words, look into their eyes. See if they are smiling. It will tell you so much of what you ultimately need to know.

More on smiling and other ways to generate happiness in The Two Most Important Days, How to Find your Purpose and Live a Happier, Healthier Life.


Meredith Melnick, “The Age-Defying Benefits of Having Older (and Younger) Friends,” Huffington Post, May 6, 2014,

Christopher Bergland, “Why Is Physical Activity So Good for Your Brain?,” Psychology Today, September 22, 2014,….

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