As cosmetic dentists we are constantly finding new techniques to make more predictable the science and art of making beautiful similes. We have come a long way as a result of better porcelains and more translucent and resistant composites and bonds. With the help of lasers, cosmetic and periodontal surgeries and even implants, we can give virtually anybody a beautiful “movie star” smile. But with so much research, effort and money spent on elective cosmetic dentistry, the question some patients, the public and even our colleagues might ask is: is a patient’s smile really that important or could we spend this money on a more worthy cause?

Reviewing literature from psychology and other non-dental fields regarding the study of “the smile” allows us to assess the social-emotional effects the smile has in our life. Humans are first and foremost social creatures. Much of what makes us tick has to do with our interrelations with other humans; everything else is subjugated to our emotions toward ourselves and what we think others feel about us. Understanding the basic need of humans to be appreciated and understood, many researchers have studied the subject of human relations and how to build them.

Smiles to Influence

Almost 70 years ago, in his landmark book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie talks about the all important need of humans to have meaningful relationships with others and how good social interrelationships can lead to much success in life and in business. Interestingly, in his book he devoted the very first chapter to the importance of a smile, it being the “big secret of dealing with people.” In this chapter, he spoke of the importance of using the smile to create good, positive first impressions and cited Charles Schwab as an example. Schwab was known for his influential smile, and through empirical observation, became well aware of its power. But was this empirical observation true to science? In a study done by the University of Oxford and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, conducted with the intention of assessing the method humans use most to identify cooperative partners, researchers studied the effect of the smile; the results of the study lent “support to the prediction that smiles can elicit cooperation amongst strangers in a one-short interaction.” In simple words, a smile can win friends and influence people.

Smiles to Please

The smile is the most basic facial expression and when we deprive ourselves of it we are denying ourselves pleasure. Yet the public spends far more on makeup products (billions of dollars every year) than they spend in all fields of dentistry combined. The reason? Humans have an unstoppable urge to be liked and appreciated. We have learned that a pleasant appearance makes us more popular. The first things people notice on a person’s face are the eyes, the mouth and the smile (or lack thereof). A smile makes us appear more cooperative and research also shows that a pleasant smile induces a similar response, bringing pleasure to the person with the smile and the person receiving the smile. No amount of makeup or jewelry will ever do that.

Smile as a Therapy

The ultimate value of the smile is its ability to bring us joy, but is the smile a result of a joyous occasion? Or can the smile itself give us pleasure? On this subject, research by J. K. Hietanen and V. Surakka in 1997 shed light on the fact that a smile can actually induce a “feeling of pleasure,” even if the smile is that of a stranger in a photo, as long as the smile is genuine. Hietanen and Surakka attempted to explain the neural mechanism that can allow the receiver, or the person being smiled at, and the signaler, or the person smiling, to share a feeling of true pleasure thanks to the smile. It is no wonder that most advertisements in magazines and on television include people laughing and smiling with gorgeous teeth. Marketing experts are well aware of the pleasure-inducing power of smiles.

With so much hard evidence of the deep value of a smile, how could we as dentists not help people enjoy their smiles? Throughout my professional life as a cosmetic dentist, I have heard thousands of people tell me they avoid smiling because they don’t have the confidence in their teeth to do so. Knowing the pleasure smiles can bring to those giving and receiving them, what a tragedy it is for the person who doesn’t willingly smile and for the loved ones around them. Conversely, we have all had the pleasure to see first hand those whose lives have changed as a result of being able to smile freely for the first time in their lives. Our profession is one that improves the quality of life of our patients. It brings happiness to others. It brings pleasure and positive therapy. It makes people more influential and makes it easier for them to have friends. Can anyone find a better way to spend their resources and their lives than in giving the gift of a smile to their patients?