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Facebook Profile Pics Predict Future Happiness

• October 19, 2011 • 1:26 PM

College freshmen whose Facebook profile pictures featured intense smiles were more likely to feel satisfied with their lives 3½ years later.

You can learn all sorts of information by perusing a person’s Facebook page. But newly published research suggests you can ascertain a key fact about that individual – how satisfied they are with their life – without reading a word.

Just check out their profile picture, and gauge the intensity of their smile.

True, the profile pic may be a few years old. But a paper just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests the visual information remains not only valid, but predictive of the future.

In two studies, university students who displayed a more intense smile in their first-semester Facebook profile picture reported higher levels of life satisfaction — both when the picture was posted, and again as they approached graduation three-and-a-half years later.

“The expression of positive affect captured in a photograph can convey surprisingly rich information about people’s long-term well being,” write University of Virginia psychologists J. Patrick Seder and Shigehiro Oishi, the paper’s co-authors.

In the first study, 48 University of Virginia students (20 men) completed the Satisfaction with Life Scale in the middle of their freshman year (in late 2005 or early 2006), and again at the end of their senior year (in the spring of 2009). They responded to five statements such as “In most ways, my life is close to my ideal,” expressing their level of agreement with each on a one-to-seven scale.

Their freshman-year pictures were coded by measuring the intensity of action in two groups of facial muscles – one that elicits raised cheeks, and another that raises the corners of the mouth.

The intensity of their smile “was a robust predictor of life satisfaction three and one-half years later,” the researchers report. In addition, those with more intense smiles were more likely to report an increase in their life-satisfaction level over the three and one-half year period.

The second study essentially duplicated the first, using 36 members of the freshman class of fall 2006. The results were the same.

This research confirms the results of a 2001 study, which found a link between the intensity with which a group of female students smile in their college graduation yearbook photos in 1958 and 1960 and their self-reported life satisfaction three decades later. The 2006 Facebook photos tended to be far less formal than the 1950s-era graduation snapshots, but the predictive power of smile intensity survived the transition to the social networking era.

So why do these images tell us so much? Seder and Oishi present some possible answers.

“It is plausible that an intense smile displayed in a Facebook profile photo (especially in a college context) indicates that people will be more likely to act similarly in ‘real life,’” they write. If so, those who smile more intensely “may seem more friendship-worthy and approachable.”

“Individuals who tend to smile intensely may be more sought-after as interaction partners,” they add. Thus such people are more likely to make friends, and have a better shot at establishing satisfying personal relationships.

At this point, such explanations are necessarily speculative, and it’s worth noting that these samples were small. But this research becomes still more interesting when compared with a 2010 study of baseball players. It found those who intensely smiled in early-career headshots lived an average of seven years longer than those with small or nonexistent smiles.

Perhaps the equation is simple. Smiling is good for your social life, and an active social life – one that fosters close relationships – has been linked to higher levels of health and happiness.

So if you’re unhappy with life, give your profile picture a long look, and then give these findings some thought. Perhaps Facebook has given us a tool to learn about not just each other, but also ourselves.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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