The Science Behind the Land of Smiles

Kanokchan Patanapichai




A Thai lady smiling as she is taking a selfie.

Scientifically, smiling can create a chemical reaction in the brain and make people happy.  In other words, smiling can trick your brain into happiness. When you feel stressed, tensed, and weary, smiling can help release tension and let out negative thoughts, so a smile is actually a remedy, or therapy for the mind.

A foreign couple in Thailand sticking their heads out of the car, smiling happily.

Amazingly, smiles are so abundant in Thailand, as they are on the face of the Thais. Everywhere you go in Thailand, you will be treated with a natural happy smile. Thais are specialists in smiling happily, as it comes naturally, so possibly smiling genes are embedded in our DNA.

Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”. From airport officials to public transport staff, from salespersons in big department stores to street food vendors selling juicy grilled pork and sticky rice, from elderly people to young kids, smiles are everywhere.

For the past few decades, the Thai “smile” has been widely used in promotional campaigns to attract foreign tourists. It is not a marketing tool created for promotional purposes, but very much part of the cultural identity of Thailand, reflecting the Thais’ unique characteristics – friendliness, helpfulness, care, kindness and thoughtfulness. 

Why do Thais smile?

Thai culture is very open. Thais are easy-going, friendly and sweet by nature. They love fun and humour. Found everywhere, the smile signals a relaxed way of life, friendship, and welcome, and makes Thai culture unique.

When asked to define the outstanding characteristics of Thai culture, Monthon Kasantikul, a Thai blogger and the owner of the “I roam alone” YouTube channel, who has travelled the world solo and witnessed many different cultures, is quick to answer “Nam Chai (generosity and helpfulness, which can be literally translated to “water from the heart”). and Yim (smile)”.

“Thais are so generous. Wherever I go in Thailand, people are so helpful. Smiles are an outstanding feature of the Thai people. The smile is charming. I bring smiles with me everywhere I travel. What I get back are friendship and happiness,” Monthon said with that famed big smile creasing her face.

Smile even when in a difficult situation

The smile is an integral part of the Thai way of life and culture. In the Thai dictionary published by the Royal Institute in 1999, there are as many as 28 words related to smile or yim in Thai. Half of them are about enjoyment and happiness, while the rest refers to a reaction in a difficult or unpleasant situation. 

Have you ever watched a tough sporting competition where the athletes are under loads of stress and pressure? Can you guess which team is Thai? Of course, the one with smiles. When they win, they smile. When they lose, they smile. When something goes wrong, Thais smile.

Many people probably cannot understand this phenomenon. But to Thais, it is perfectly normal. Smiles come naturally.

A young body standing in a rice field, holding rice paddy in each of his hands and smiling.

In a sporting competition, when the players smile, they are telling themselves to be relaxed. At the same time, they are communicating with other team players that it is okay to make mistakes. We are a team; we have to make it happen. When they win, the smile means a big reward. When they lose, they smile to cheer up the others and congratulate the other team.

In Thai culture, which is strongly influenced by Buddhism, forgiveness and care are deep-rooted. It is a peaceful culture that avoids confrontation or the expression of bad feelings. Smiling is a way to show politeness, care, and forgiveness. Smiling is also a mental therapy to help release tension when in stress or under pressure. So, it is not surprising to see us smile in difficult situations.

Some research has confirmed that even a fake smile can reduce stress and blood pressure. A smile can be such a positive action in the sense that even faking one can trick your own mind into feeling happy and actually producing a genuine smile.

It might be difficult for foreigners to understand right away what Thais are really thinking when they smile. The best way to understand this is to be open and try to look at things in the Thai context rather than using their own background and experience in judging. With an open heart and mind, you will eventually discover how profoundly spiritual and unique Thai culture is. Deep under the glamourous exterior, there is a meaningful resilience residing under every Thai smile.


Kanokchan Patanapichai

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