Reviewed by David Dobbs
Sometimes when I encounter writing I especially admire, I like to type it out. Say, Nabokov, in The Luzhin Defense, describing his heroine taking a bath amid marital confusion:
As she immersed herself in the bath she watched the tiny water bubbles gathering on her skin and on the sinking, porous sponge. Settling down up to the neck, she saw herself through the already slightly soapy water, her body thin and almost transparent, and when a knee came just barely out of the water, this round, glistening, pink island was somehow unexpected in its unmistakable corporeality.
I type such passages because it seems they might rub off. So when for some reason the passages I had highlighted in my Kindle version of the book under review here, SMILE: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, did not carry from my reading device to my Amazon Kindle highlights web page, where normally I would be able to select and copy them, I frowned, because this malfunction meant that to show you any passages from this book I would have to re-type them, and I feared, dear reader, and still fear, that they might rub off. I will have to read a lot of Nabokov to make up for this.
The problem begins with the beginning, where precisely 11% of this e-book, according to my Kindle, is devoted to setting up a punchline that the title has already shouted loud. The author, a Palo Alto entrepreneur named Ron Gutman, who truly does seem like a nice guy, opens by describing a bus ride he once took in Africa. The driver and all Gutman's fellow passengers greet glumly his foreign face, language, and clothing, then leave him sitting alone, isolated on the crowded bus. After a couple hours of this dusty bus ride, and many, many words, he springs his surprise:
I decided to try something different and do something entirely unexpected. It was time to pull out the special power I had learned and brought with me from my interactions with people I had met during my previous travels through Asia and India, when I had connected with people from other cultures who did not speak any of the languages that I do.
I smiled at everyone around me. I smiled indiscriminately, I smiled widely, I smiled continuously. Whether people looked at me or not, I smiled at them. Although no one responded to my smiles, I started to feel better.
They do eventually respond, of course, and soon the whole bus is smiling. Thus this book is born:
In the heart of a foreign land, away from development and infrastructure, in a closed environment where I looked and felt like an outsider, stuck in a situation where it seemed I could not talk to or understand others, and in the midst of unusual tension that I could not understand or explain, I became aware of the hidden power of the smile.
This smiling reveal may have worked on the bus, and it works, mostly, sort of, in Gutman’s 7-minute TED talk. It does not work on the page. As I seem to remember someone once saying rather cruelly of another writer I'll leave unnamed: What’s important is not new, and what’s new is not important.* And everything is repeated.
Did you know, for instance, that people everywhere smile? This means smiling is universal. Even more amazing: Your smile not only makes the people you smile at feel better, it makes you feel better too. Also, on a separate page very nearby, even as smiling makes you feel better, it makes others feel better! Or did I say that? Anyway, smiling at people also makes them think that you are both more competent and more friendly than they would think otherwise — and, incredibly, your smile also makes them feel more friendly and competent. Plus better.
This can change things. Indeed, if you think about it, smiles have “incredible transformative powers.” Smiles “can dramatically and quickly change social situations, breaking down barriers while forming connections and fostering happiness.” They can also, even as soon as one paragraph later, “create rapport and a human connection.”
Gutman finds this all astonishing — although he usually says “amazing,” presumably to reserve “astonishing” for the book’s subtitle. He is explicitly amazed, in fact, 12 times. (Beware, authors, the power of the Kindle to count your crutch words.) Overall, I would say, what amazes him most is the smile's astonishing power to make things better. He remarks on this power to make things "better” at least 25 times. It excites him. So he exclaims! Alas, Kindle will not find and count exclamation points. Damn!
Mechanisms emerge. Smiling, Gutman tells us, sets up a feedback loop:
To glaze this donut, Gutman turns to science. He finds many studies but, apparently, few commas. Did you know, for instance, that “in two separate studies examining thousands of pictures taken from 1968 through 1993 and 1970 through 1999 researchers discovered that 55 percent to 60 percent of men and 80 percent of women smile in photos from pleasant public situations”? Me either.
Why do people smile so? Because “smiling makes us feel and look better, both to ourselves and to others.” It was about here that my frown began to turn to fury, for while Gutman had related this fact at least ten times already, I was only, my Kindle cruelly revealed, 62% of the way through the book, which was way too far and hardly far enough. Then, in case I’d forgotten this crucial message while checking my progress, he used the next sentence to tell me an eleventh time.
The glaze accrues. “Under certain conditions, when men see women smile at them they interpret that as a sign that the women think they are attractive.” I would never have guessed. Lest I resist this news, however, Gutman offers a study showing that a women who smiles at male patrons as she enters a bar will get hit on far more often than she would if she simply makes eye contact as she walks in — which to me seems a brave enough thing itself. Same goes in libraries, One researcher, in fact, “ended up marrying one of her test subjects who first approached her because of her smile!" Exclamation point his.
Scan studies too enter the picture, arriving as thin, obvious, inevitable, and alluring as a pharmaceutical sales rep at a doctor's office. One fMRI study, for instance — of 28 moms, which is only a few more than the number of times Gutman mentions this effect — showed that Mommy’s pleasure centers light up when Baby smiles. Other scan studies show that a single smile can bring the brain as much pleasure as 2000 chocolate bars or $25,000. Someone tell the chocolate people they're wildly underpricing. And for me, please hold the smile; I'll take the cash.
What can we do with this information? Gutman offers suggestions. Smile. Smile at strangers. Smile at yourself. Smile the first thing on waking. Smile when you’re skydiving. Smile while you’re giving natural childbirth. Offers one smiley devotee, “I smiled through my natural, drug-free labor and fully believe it transformed the whole experience. I recommend smiling to all women going through childbirth.” I would love to have seen this woman recommend that to my wife as she was being wheeled down the hall for a c-section after 40 hours of labor and 4 hours of pushing. In fact, to test the astonishing power of this recommendation, I just now read it aloud to my wife. Her reaction makes me long to see this woman offer her this advice even now. She wouldn't be smiling when she finished.
I don’t mean to be cruel. I’m actually fairly smiley myself. But this book, which as a TED book is supposed to be about "a powerful idea," is a fatty concoction of neuropop, adventure travel, self-help, California woo, and Palo Alto entrepreneurial gush. It pushes positive thinking across some mathematical warp zone that renders it negative. I suspect it would make even the father of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, just fwow wight up.
But don’t take my word for it. I’ll give Gutman a chance to close the deal. Elipses are his:
So, whenever you want to look great, sociable, and competent, or whenever you want to reduce your stress or improve your marriage, or whenever you want to feel as if you’ve just had a huge stack of high-quality chocolate (without incurring the caloric cost) or as if you’ve just found $25,000 in the pocket of an old jacket you haven’t work for ages…. Or when you want to earn the trust of others so you can change the world for the better…. Or when you just want to help yourself and others around you live longer, healthier happier lives … SMILE.
At that I believe I did smile, or at least grimace with relief, for I had finally reached the end.
Roy Scheider's with me on this, by the way:
Thanks, Ed Yong, for the tip on the vid.
David Dobbs, the author of The Atavist e-book bestseller My Mother's Lover, writes on science, culture, and sports for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magzine, National Geographic, and Slate. He blogs at WIRED is now writing his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion.