Duchenne Smile

By: Julia Thomas

Updated November 18, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Natalie Feinblatt

A smile is one of the most powerful forms of nonverbal communication, and a genuine smile is known as a Duchenne smile. A smile could start a relationship or disarm a hostile partner. A smile provides comfort and is often contagious. Grinning shares our joy and masks hidden agendas. Research has shown that a smile is actually much more complex. 

a woman smiling - is it a duchenne smile, a genuine grin? Or something else?

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On the surface, we associate Duchenne smiles or other grins with happiness. In addition to showing happiness, a smile can also convey embarrassment, self-doubt, deceit, arrogance, and even grief. By understanding the physiology behind smiling, we can understand when this gesture is genuine (a Duchenne smile) and when it is not.


Nonverbal communication plays a big role in how we process interactions with others. Researchers tend to disagree on the actual numbers, but it is estimated that 60 to 93% of our communication is nonverbal. Whatever the exact number, it is clear that nonverbal communication significantly impacts how we relate to others.

What Is A Duchenne Smile?

The Duchenne smile is a genuine grin. This Duchenne smile was named after a French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, a pioneer of the science of electrophysiology. In his research, he discovered genuine grins (or Duchenne smiles) incorporated two specific facial muscles:
  • Zygomatic major muscle: This muscle resides around the cheeks and turns the corners of the lips up.
  • Orbicularis oculi muscle: This muscle contracts around the eyes, resulting in the distinctive wrinkles often referred to as "crow's feet." It is also responsible for closing the eyelids.

A Duchenne smile requires both these muscles to work together. Other types of smiles only use the zygomatic major muscle. Duchenne argued only the "sweet emotions of the soul" force the orbicularis oculi to contract.

Research Behind the Duchenne Smile

Duchenne was fascinated with facial expressions and how people communicated using body language. In his research, he catalogued the muscles used for different facial expressions. He studied emotional expression by stimulating various facial muscles with electrical currents. Duchenne published a book in 1862 entitled Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine discussing his findings.
Much of his work on the Duchenne smile was forgotten in modern times until Raul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, psychologists at the University of California at San Francisco, captured the muscular interactions of 3,000 facial expressions using their Facial Action Coding System (FACS) in the 1970s. They found that the Duchenne smile was associated with an increase in activity in the brain's left anterior temporal region—an area connected with positive effect—as well as the left parietal region, which is stimulated by verbal activity.

A renewed interest in Duchenne's work and Duchenne smiles showed how positive emotions directly correlated to duchenne smiles. Some researchers believe the Duchenne smile is not just a brief spark of emotion, but a clear window into a person's core disposition.

The Duchenne Smile Vs Other Types of Smiles

The Duchenne smile is just one type of smile. Some researchers suggest there are up to 50 different types of smiles we use to communicate. Smiles convey a variety of messages, including fear, nervousness, deception, sarcasm, arrogance, concern, and more. Aside from the Duchenne smile, here are some other common types:

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Tight-Lipped Smile

The tight-lipped smile is one of the most common forms of smiling. It happens when the lips are stretched across the face, but there is very little upward curl at the corners of the mouth. This smile is easily faked and used to be polite (unlike the Duchenne smile). The tight-lipped smile is common when meeting someone new or communicating with someone you don't particularly like.

The Smug 

Similar to the tight-lipped smile, the smug smile usually has the lips pressed together. One corner of the mouth may be raised; people tend to consider this as demonstrating superiority or satisfaction, not like the genuine Duchenne smile.

The Smirk

Also similar to the smug smile, the smirk can be used when questioning authority or displaying sarcasm. I suggests some kind of sneering or amusement, unlike the Duchenne smile.

The Uneven Or Half Smile

The uneven or half smile has lips together or slightly apart, but one side of the mouth is usually raised while the other side is level or lower. This is often associated with tongue-in-cheek humor. It is also used when conflicting emotions are present.

Seductive Smile

Smiles can effectively show our affection or interest for someone else. Anyone receiving a seductive smile from a potential love interest may feel excitement or mutual interest. This is a slight smile often accompanied by other gestures like direct eye contact then quickly turning away. Because it can be used intentionally, it is not quite a Duchenne smile.

Tips For Spotting A Fake Smile

By understanding the muscles involved in Duchenne smiles, it is much easier to tell when a person's smile is fake or forced. Spotting a fake smile can make us more mindful of another person's nonverbal communications and their true intentions. Tight-lipped smiles, for example, could indicate the person is being polite, feigning interest, or unsure how they feel about you.

Here are three ways to spot a fake smile:

two woman each showing a Duchenne smile

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  • The absence of eye movements: Duchenne smiles employ the orbicularis oculi muscle, which causes the eyes to close. If a person is faking a smile, their upper face will not move.
  • The absence of crow's feet: The orbicularis oculi muscle is also responsible for “crow's feet,” or small wrinkles, at the corners of the eyes. “Crow’s feet” are a telltale sign of a Duchenne smile.
  • Visible bottom teeth: During a Duchenne smile, the zygomatic major muscle moves upwards. When faking a smile, there is a tendency for this muscle to move outwards, sometimes exposing the bottom teeth.
Exploring the Benefits Of Smiling

Duchenne smiles are more than a sign of happiness. The benefits of smiling and the laughter that often follows can have a positive effect on your health and well-being. Here are a few of those benefits:

Releases Natural Feel-Good Chemicals Called Endorphins
The act of a Duchenne smile triggers the release of neurotransmitters called endorphins. These chemicals help lower stress levels and make us feel happier. Endorphins also act as natural painkillers, helping with chronic pain. As you increase your smiling, more endorphins are released into your system.
Boosts And Improves The Immune System
Smiling can help prevent and fight illnesses. When endorphins are released while beaming, they can reduce levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Lowered cortisol levels have been associated with lower blood pressure, reduced body fat, a stronger immune system, and even a higher libido. Additionally, a study conducted on hospitalized children visited by storytellers and puppeteers showed an increase in immunity-boosting white blood cells an hour after the grin-inducing visit.

Spreads Joy And Uplifts People Around You

It's not often you hear that something “contagious” is also good, but smiling is both. When you see someone beam, the area of your brain controlling facial movements is activated, often leading to a reactive duchenne smile. Even in tense situations, a grin can be contagious and offer some relief.

When you smile, you appear more positive and approachable to others. Genuine grins can convey self-confidence, a cheerful demeanor, and trustworthiness. 

Therapy Can Boost Your Smile

No matter what emotional or mental health issues might be taking up space in your life, pursuing therapy might be the key to unlocking a more frequent and powerful Duchenne smile on your own face. A recent study found that individuals treated for depression had more instances of Duchenne smiles following treatment than during their intake interviews. Furthermore, another study found that experiencing depression may inhibit one’s ability to recognize the Duchenne smile in others. Seeking support from a mental health professional, like the online therapists available through BetterHelp, can create positive change in your life through more genuine grins—on your own face and on those around you.

Online therapy is flexible and accessible; because you can arrange your sessions with a therapist around your schedule and lifestyle, you can meet whenever and wherever you’d like, via video chat, phone call, or text message. An online therapist will be able to help you understand your own emotions as well as those around you. Consider these reviews from BetterHelp users who have worked with online counselors to make emotional progress.

Counselor Reviews 

"I loved working with Patricia Chicca! She always has a smile on her face and something to help make you smile too. Her techniques may seem a little odd at first but they really do work when you put in the effort to use them. She is a wonderful woman and you don't have to feel uncomfortable about telling her anything, she was definitely here for me and not for money, and I'm sure she will be the same way to you." Read more about Patricia Chicca.
"Saying that I am EXTREMELY pleased with Reginald Burgess as my therapist is an understatement. While remaining professional at all times, talking to him feels like talking to a friend. He is attentive, empathetic, humorous, warm ( I could hear him smiling through the phone) and possesses a calm demeanor that quickly puts one at ease. These attributes created an environment that allowed me to feel supported and trusting enough to share my life's challenges, begin doing the internal work necessary to gain control and to heal.     I will be forever grateful for his expertise and  gentle guidance in helping me realize that I CAN live my best life. It is without hesitation that I'd recommend Mr. Burgess as your therapist. You won't regret it." Read more about Reginald Burgess.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why Is It Called A Duchenne Smile?

A Duchenne smile is a genuine form of grin where a person is experiencing joy, not just smiling because they feel like they need to. The Duchenne smile was named after Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, a French neurologist who studied electrophysiology. He found in his research that two particular muscles are involved in a Duchenne smile: the zygomatic major muscle, which is in the cheeks and impacts the corners of the lips; and the orbicularis oculi muscle, which contracts near the eyes and creates wrinkles around the eyes. Duchenne was interested in studying people's facial expressions and body language.

What Is A Genuine Smile?

A genuine smile isn't forced but occurs when someone is purely experiencing happiness and smiles as a reaction.

How Do You Know If A Smile Is Real?

Often, you can intuitively sense if a person's smile is real or not. They'll seem content with their body language and might be saying things to indicate that they're happy. Their eyes will light up, or they might laugh. It's hard to fake a Duchenne smile. With Duchenne smiles, your cheeks will rise, and your eyes will have natural crinkles that are often affiliated with genuine smiles.

Why Do Some People Smile Upside Down?

Smiles come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone has a unique smile. An individual might have a half-smile, might be self-conscious of their teeth, or might be hesitant to show emotions, so they might smile upside down or not at all.

Why Is Smiling Good For You?

Smiling is good for you because it produces chemicals in the brain that positively impact your body. Happiness is a wonderful feeling; a Duchenne smile shows your body that you're content, and your hormones will react accordingly.

How Can I Make A Genuine Smile?

To make a Duchenne smile, find something that makes you laugh, or that makes you truly happy.

What Does A Smile Tell You About A Person?

A smile can tell you if a person is in touch with their feelings, and whether or not they're open or communicative. It can also tell you that someone is grounded and is comfortable experiencing joy outwardly. A Duchenne smile shows that someone is content, but a fake smile can show you that someone is showing their happiness.

Why Do People Smile?

People smile (whether Duchenne smile or otherwise) to show happiness and warmth. People also smile to show empathy or sociability, which is part of why people are often drawn to those who smile frequently.

What Does It Mean When Someone Smiles A Lot?

When someone smiles a lot, it can mean a lot of different things. It's likely that smiling is natural for them and that it's just part of who they are as a person, whether it's a Duchenne smile or not. Smiling can make a person appear more open or friendly than an unsmiling person.

How Do I Get A Cute Smile?

A cute smile comes from being comfortable with your feelings. It's an expression that pops up when you are happy, and you don't need to make a purposeful effort to appear cute. The right person will recognize you as attractive. You just need to find happiness within yourself, and if you're smiling for real reasons, people will pick up on that.

Duchenne Smile

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