The Remarkable Smile Experiment

I have been on a week’s holiday at the beautiful beaches near Cairns with my wife, Ann. Most people go on a holiday to enjoy themselves so, for the fun of it, I decided to measure how many people appear to be experiencing this sense of enjoyment. Walking along the beach promenade from our apartment at Palm Cove, definitely a piece of paradise, I began sorting people’s faces into two categories, Smilers and Non-Smilers. You may think this is an over simplification as not everyone expresses joy by smiling, but I needed to keep it simple. So let’s call it a pilot experiment.

Photo of Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

Because I didn’t want to influence the behaviour of my subjects, I refrained from making eye contact as I passed each person or group, and maintained an impassive expression. Pretty soon I was in a great data collecting rhythm, counting Smilers versus Non-Smilers, 2:6, 3:6, 3:7, 3:8, 4:8, 4:9, and so on. Ann could see my lips moving and laughed when I explained my experiment. By the time we reached the jetty around a kilometre away I had a respectable scientific sample of 239 people. The results were surprising.

There were 39 Smilers and 200 Non-Smilers. Just one person out of every six seemed to be overtly enjoying their time in paradise. As I reflected on these results, I had an interesting thought. While I had been counting the faces of people strolling by, browsing in shops, and eating and drinking in bars and cafes, I had also noticed something in my peripheral vision. Many of the people who were actively engaged in doing something constructive — for instance cleaning tables, making food, attending to gardens, and talking to customers — seemed to be smiling.

Measuring the power of serving others

So walking back from the jetty I continued my impromptu experiment, but this time my sample only included people working. By the time we reached our apartment I’d counted 42 faces, and 24 of these — the majority — had been Smilers! In other words, based on my pilot experiment, if we randomly pluck 100 holiday makers from Palm Cove, 17 will overtly appear to be enjoying themselves, whereas if we take 100 people who are serving others, 57 (over three times as many) will seem to be enjoying themselves.

You could argue that most of the working Smilers are smiling because it’s part of their job description, but I think there’s also something else going on. Many seemed to genuinely be enjoying themselves and were actually laughing, especially those relating to others.

Several years ago I attended a workshop with a leading expert on the psychological impact of holidays, Professor Sabine Sonnentag. She had been able to prove that the stress reducing effects of going on a holiday last an average of three weeks. (Most of the enjoyment comes from the positive anticipation before the holiday). She wisely recommended that, rather than relying on holidays to maintain positive mental health, a more effective strategy is to do daily activities that are challenging, enjoyable and engaging. I am sure many of the people who work in hospitality do indeed find their work challenging, enjoyable and engaging, particularly if they also have friends on the job.

Ann and I are about to board our flight out of Cairns and, while I’ve enjoyed my holiday immensely, I also realise it would be foolish to rely on this to keep me in a good frame of mind for the rest of the year. And you know something really wierd. One of the highlights of my holiday was doing that little experiment. Now was that work or fun?

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