In fourth grade, I was accused by a girl, Janet, of ruining our class picture. She was referring to the dour expression I had on my face amidst the sea of fresh nine and ten-year-old smiles. For years, all the way through high school, Janet referred to me as "The Walrus." As for creating a pleasant reflection of her fourth grade experience, I can certainly understand why she was upset. But if photographs are documents of a specific place and time, then she got exactly what she paid for.
I have never been much for "saying cheese" when a camera is pointed at me. There are plenty of family snapshots and not just a few Christmas cards that bear witness to this phenomenon. One might imagine, with only these pictures for evidence, that I had a miserable childhood. That would not be accurate. The most miserable times in my young life were, apparently, those moments when the leering camera eye caught me in some highly posed and less-than-spontaneous moment. I never fully understood the need to stop having fun so that the fun could be documented.
Fast forward a few decades to a psychological study in which researchers looked at people's college yearbook photos, and rated their smile intensity from one to ten. None of the people who fell within the top ten percent of smile strength had divorced, while within the bottom ten percent of smilers, almost one in four had had a marriage that ended, the researchers say. It comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen any of the photos from my adolescence that high school didn't bring about a radical change in my public smile quotient. In a second trial, the research team asked people to provide photos from their childhood. The average age in the pictures was ten years old. The researchers scored each person's smile, and found that only eleven percent of the biggest smilers had been divorced, while thirty-one percent of the frowners had experienced a broken marriage.
And so, the cynical and skeptical me wonders how grinning like an idiot in the presence of flashbulbs predicts marital tranquility. What about the old aphorism about how it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile? Doesn't that make me a and my fellow frowners hard workers? Lazy people smile.
Or maybe it's like the connection between baby names and socio-economic stratification. You can make a connection if you choose to, but it may not be causal. I like to think that I'm saving up all my smiles for my wife and kid. And to Janet, all I can say with a twinkle in my eye, is "Goo Goo Ga Joob."