Happy scientists are also more likely to produce the most impactful science

A scientist’s smile might provide a small clue about how impactful his or her research is. A study recently published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found a relationship between smiling and impactful research.

“This study results from two of fascinations of ours,” the study’s corresponding author, Lukasz D. Kaczmarek of Adam Mickiewicz University, told PsyPost. “First, this study is about the function of positive emotions. It is fantastic to collect new evidence that joy or happiness can help mobilize the resources required to effectively complete life goals. This is what we termed the broaden and build model of positive emotions.”

“The second fascination is with so-called thin-slicing research methodology. In thin-slicing we use publicly available real-life data that has a particular psychological meaning. In this case, we took a sample of photos and publication records from a large set of ResearchGate profiles. We used a very thin-slice of someone’s behavior (choosing a profile photograph) to estimate this person’s emotionality: a person who is smiling on a profile photo is more likely to be a cheerful person in everyday life.”

“Research that has used thin-slicing in the past has revealed that this method is surprisingly accurate,” Kaczmarek said. “We used this type of data to test hypotheses derived from psychological theories. It is a great supplement to laboratory or survey methods that are much more popular in psychology. Laboratory and survey methods, however, suffer from poor ecological validity, i.e., we are never sure whether they reflect real-life processes accurately. Thus, it is crucial to use different approaches in testing hypotheses because the variety of methods supports the robustness of findings.”

The researchers examined the profiles of 440 scientists (220 women and 220 men) on ResearchGate, a social networking service. The scientists were split into three groups: those who didn’t smile, those who partially smiled, and those with a full-on smile.

Kaczmarek and his colleagues found a positive relationship between smile intensity and work impact, even after controlling for the effects of sex and age. Scientists with a full smile in their profile picture tended to have a greater number of citations of their work.

“We were very fortunate to observe one of the most suggestive evidence that happy scientists are more likely to produce the most impactful science,” Kaczmarek said. “This is important because it contradicts some stereotypes regarding researchers. Some people might think that a serious scientist should be dead serious or worried all the time. With this research we were able to show that happy emotionality among scientists and impactful science are related.

“Obviously, it does not mean that only scientists with positive emotionality produce great science. This type of evidence suggest, however, that positive emotionality is an extra resource that is likely to assist scientists in navigating the shoals of academic life.”

However, there was no relationship found between smile intensity and the number of studies published.

“Replicability and causality are two main challenges for this study,” Kaczmarek told PsyPost. “First, such suggestive findings need replication, perhaps using data from other publicly available social networking sites for scientists such a Google Scholar.”

“Second, what we found in this particular research is that happy profile photographs and academic achievements go together,” he continued. “This is a correlation. We know that correlations often happen to be problematic. Above all, correlations say nothing about causality (only experiments do). This means that we can never be certain with this type of data whether happiness leads to achievements, achievements lead to happiness, or both. Previous research on positive emotionality and work outcomes suggests that this influence is likely to act in both directions: success at work influences how people are happy in life, and individuals who are happier are more productive at work.”

The study, “Smile intensity in social networking profile photographs is related to greater scientific achievements“, was also co-authored by Maciej Behnke, Todd B. Kashdan, Aleksandra Kusiak, Katarzyna Marzec, Martyna Mistrzak and Magdalena W┼éodarczyk.