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Yearbook Photo Predicts Happiness, Divorce and Death?

Apr 7 2014, 9:03am CDT | by , in News | Also on the Geek Mind

Can Your Yearbook Photo Predict Happiness, Divorce, Death?
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Yearbook Photo Predicts Happiness, Divorce and Death?

Look back at your high school or college yearbook photo, and what does it tell you? A lot more than whether you were a geek or a homecoming princess, it turns out. From your expression, psychologists say, they may be able to predict how happy your life will be, whether your marriage will last, even how long you’ll live. Believe it? Let’s look at the studies.

Can Your Yearbook Photo Predict If Your Marriage Will Last?

The most recent photo-prediction research to get attention comes from Matthew Hertenstein, professor of psychology at DePauw University, who studied yearbook and childhood photos and documented a correlation between how often people smile and the likelihood they’ll divorce.

Hertenstein’s research was first published in 2009 in the journal Motivation and Emotion but received a new round of attention a few months ago with the publication of his book The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are (Basic Books, 2013).

“Those who smiled least, compared to those who smiled most, were actually five times more likely to be divorced at some point in their life,” Hertenstein told interviewer Meredith Viera on the Today Show. Watch this clip to see him demonstrate how your smile – or lack of it – in a snapshot can reveal whether or not your marriage will last.

How in the world can a yearbook photo make a prediction like this? It’s all about the intensity of your smile, researchers say.

Can Your Yearbook Photo Predict How Long You’ll Live?

That’s the question posed by Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger of Wayne State University in a 2010 study published in Psychological Science.

The researchers started with 230 photos of baseball players published in the 1952 Baseball Register. They then divided the photos into three categories: no smile, partial smile, full “Duchenne smile” (see below) to capture the “intensity” of the player’s positivity. Next they used matched the player’s smile rating against his age at death, controlling for factors like how long the players continued to play ball, whether they had a college education, and their body-mass index.

The fascinating conclusion: Baseball players who turned a high-wattage smile on the photographer were only half as likely to die during any given year as those who smiled only partially or not at all. Those who showed a half-hearted smile lived longer than those who didn’t smile at all, but not as long as their grinning teammates.

(This Psychology Today column by noted late positive psychologist Christopher Peterson gives a good sense of the impact Abel and Kruger’s research made on colleagues.)

How Can Researchers Read a Smile?

Picture the smiley face icon – the only thing differentiating it from a frowning face is the upwardly curving mouth line. But in reality, experts say, there are actually two sets of muscles at work when you smile. The cheek muscles, known as the zygomatic major, lift up the outside corners of the mouth, while the orbicularis oculi, a ring of muscle surrounding the eye sockets, crinkle your eyes into a happy squint.

As far back as the 1860s, a French scientist by the name of Guillaume Duchenne studied the mechanics of smiling using electrical currents to stimulate facial muscles and discovered that while we can make our mouths smile on cue, we can’t do the same with our eyes. The eyes, therefore, can be used to “unmask a false friend,” as he famously wrote. Hence the term “Duchenne smile,” still used by researchers today.

Today, the “Duchenne smile” has given rise to an even more detailed rating known as FACS (Facial Action Coding System) which catalogues 3,000 different facial expressions by the exact combination of muscles needed to produce them.

Can Your Yearbook Photo Predict if You’ll Be Happy?

Perhaps the seminal yearbook-photo-as-crystal-ball study  - and certainly the most cited – was conducted by University of California at Berkeley psychologists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner in 2001 and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Using FACS, Harker and Keltner analyzed the college yearbook photos of female students, then matched the women’s smile ratings against 30 years of personality data. By age 52, they found, the women whose photos at 21 had radiated happiness had better health, happier marriages, and expressed greater satisfaction in general with how their lives had turned out.

“Our smiles and other facial expressions are pretty reliable signals” says Keltner. “A warm smile says that person is probably engaged, interested in others, and in general feels warmly about life.”

What do you think? Better yet, get out your old yearbook photos and have a look. Does your expression predict how things have turned out so far? Talk amongst yourselves (in the comments below).

For more health news, follow me here on Forbes.com, on Twitter, @MelanieHaiken, and subscribe to my posts on Facebook.

 

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