Smiling: The self-experiment

While I am writing this article, the smiling face with open eyes is being used 56.704.059 times on Twitter. And by the time you read this, the number will probably be even higher. (Check out the great work of emojitracker, an experiment in real-time, tracking the number of all emojis used on Twitter). By that time, your friends will probably have used the very same emojis in more than 10 messages. Exactly like 74% of people asked in the US and 82% in China, according to the New York Magazine. Exactly like you.

Smiley inflation

Using the smiling emoji, or emojis in general, is no sign of linguistic erosion, but rather a medium of emphasis on the already existing content. However, I have caught myself being guilty of an inflationary use of smiling emojis numerous times – always leaving me wondering about two questions:

Why can I not be more creative? (or: Why am I being so economical with the other 721 symbols, anyway?)

And more important: Do I smile as much in real communication?

Thus, I decided to start a self-experiment: 72 hours without smiling in the digital world, while simultaneously smiling more in the real one. And like before any bold mission like this, I tried to collect some facts about my daring task.

Smiling is chocolate for your brain

A lovely one is the nature of smiling itself. It is a biological, impulsive expression, even contagious out of an evolutionary perspective. Human beings need to feel accepted in order to survive in their environment, so that their bodies can spend energy not on doubt or fear, but on more productive activities – like nutrition or security issues. No wonder smiling is observed in every tribe, clan or other form of civilization ever studied in human history.

Yet, it is not a socially constructed phenomenon: “Ultrasound pictures have proven numerous times that even unborn babies smile inside their mother’s womb,” Ron Gutman, entrepreneur in health concerning digital services, noticed in his charming TED Talk about the hidden power of smiling.

So what are these hidden powers that every smile inherits? Gutman elaborates that it can generate the very same level of stimulation in our brain’s reward system as up to 2.000 bars of chocolate, or receiving up to 16.000 pounds of money. That is a lot. Since I doubt that I will be given so much cash in the future (let aside the 2.000 chocolate bar challenge), I settled for the easy way to stimulate my rewarding system: simply smiling more.


The self-experiment  vol.1: Smile muscles, brace yourselves

So I did smile. A lot. First, I forced myself to integrate smiling into my every day conversations, but after some time it did feel natural.

Having read an interesting article about the psychological impact of smiling and its stress relieving effect, I had hoped for more happiness throughout the experiment.

There is no scientific proof to state that these 72 hours were the happiest in my life.

However I noticed something even more important: The topics of my conversations changed. The majority of the issues I discussed during the experiment concerned achievements at college, wanderlust and childhood memories, whereas topics like personal problems were not elaborated often. Was this the result of me smiling more when talking? Did the people in my social environment react to the ,contagious’ effect and consequently brought up more joyful issues?

Or maybe my self-experiment just correlated with a stress-free and happy season in my family’s and friend’s lives. Whether there is a causality relation between my behavior and the topic alteration of my discussion can only be a matter of further speculation.

The self-experiment vol.2: Digital cold turkey

So, while I found myself constantly smiling over cups of coffee or lunch, during city walks or while lying on the couch at home, I was experiencing cold turkey in the digital world: No smiling emojis in social media messages.

This side of the experiment was even more amusing. Most of my contacts reacted with an emoji and exclamation mark inflation in their own texts, as if they tried to compensate my missing excitement on the conversation’s content. In addition to my emoji-generous friends, some people even asked me whether everything was alright, whether I was unhappy or even sick. To my surprise, omitting digital smiles had – all in all – a very confusing effect.

I can only conclude that receiving a notification without any emphasis is disturbing, especially when the communication partner uses emphatic signs on a frequent basis. Still, the results of the second part of the experiment left me, too, in the following situation:

I ended my self-experiment, after 72 hours of smiling in the real world and boring, expressionless communication in the digital one: With a lot of confused friends on the internet, a relieved smile behind the screen of my computer and 56883611 smiling emoji faces on Twitter.

Photo1: Emoji Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights Delux

Photo2: Worried Face – Emojipedia


Header image credits royalty free

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