Can Yearbook Smiles Spell Marriage Bliss?

Research claims smiling in youth may indicate later marital success.

ByABC News
April 23, 2009, 6:00 PM

April 24, 2009 — -- Looking back at old yearbook photos, one might be able to tell a lot more than who had acne or a timeless fashion sense, according to a small but intriguing new study.

Researchers in the April 5 issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion proposed that smiling or frowning facial expressions in children and young adults can predict their marital status later in life.

By adapting standard of facial expressions developed 30 years ago by famous psychologist Paul Ekman, researchers categorized and then ranked the degree to which survey participants smiled in hundreds of yearbook photos.

In one sample, the researchers ranked 306 photos from college psychology alumni ranging in age from 23- and 87-years-old. In another sample, the researchers ranked 349 college alumni from various majors with an average age of 46, all of whom reported at one time being in a serious committed relationship.

Across both samples, people whose smiles ranked in the top 10 percent had a divorce rate of about 1 in 20, while those whose smiles fell in bottom 10 percent rate had a divorce rate of 5 in 20, or five times more likely to get a divorce.

The study could not provide definitive evidence. There's a high divorce rate anyways, there were more women than men in the study and the participants were virtually all Caucasian -- but lead author Matt Hertenstein said he was aware of the limitations and still intrigued by the results.

"It does suggest that potentially smiling and a positive disposition can affect the people who live around us," said Hertenstein, who is an associate professor of psychology at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.

Hertenstein said that this finding is only a correlation and therefore can't answer why or how a smile might later predict marriage status.

Take the example of Hollywood, a cadre of successful, beautiful people who smile at every turn. The group is riddled with celebrity splits, tiffs and reconciliations, as well as the occasional happy marriage.

"People's smiles or lack thereof were not their destiny in terms of their marital status later in life," said Hertenstein. "We found plenty of people who were not smiling at all and had long-lasting relationships."