All About The Smile: The Duchenne Smile And Genuine Smile Defined

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC and Julie Dodson, MA
Updated July 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Smiling can be a powerful form of nonverbal communication in many situations that may convey a variety of emotions—from happiness to sarcasm to discomfort—depending on minute physical details as well as context. In other words, not all smiles are equal. Some may even be a mechanical response to a stimulus rather than a genuine expression of emotional truth. Read on to learn more about how to recognize a genuine Duchenne smile versus a fake smile,  how smiling can relate to emotional expression, and the potential health benefits of smiling.

Unleash the power of emotion and transform your life

What is a Duchenne smile?

The Duchenne smile, named for French physician Guillaume Duchenne, is a type of smile that’s generally easily recognizable to observers as genuine. Non-Duchenne smiles aren’t necessarily fake smiles or disingenuous, but they may be interpreted as polite or used as social tools. For instance, one study found that Duchenne smiles are positively associated with psychological proximity and distance. This means that they’re more likely to appear when an individual is near someone they know and trust, while non-Duchenne smiles may be reserved for strangers or acquaintances.

Genuine smiles are typically characterized by the activation of both the zygomatic major muscles (the muscles that lift the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscles (the muscles around the eyes responsible for closing the eyes, as in blinking or squinting). The latter cause the eyes to crinkle at the corners, which some refer to as "smiling with the eyes”. If you compare a posed photo of yourself where you’re smiling for the camera to a candid photo where you’re smiling with friends, you’re likely to easily recognize the difference between the two types.

How emotions can trigger a smile

Emotions are complex psychological and physiological states that various factors—including our thoughts, feelings, and experiences—may influence. Many emotions trigger a series of physiological responses in the body, including changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle activity. Think about how you might feel your heart rate increase when you’re nervous or your muscles tense when you’re afraid, for instance. 

Emotions can also trigger facial expressions. In the case of natural smiling, the muscles of the face are usually respond to an emotional stimulus by contracting and relaxing in specific ways, producing real smiles. The zygomatic muscles in the face, for example, tend to contract in response to positive emotions like joy, happiness, or amusement, causing the corners of the mouth to lift. Smiles, especially the genuine Duchenne kind, are often a direct reflection of a positive emotion being experienced.

Potential benefits of smiling

Smiling isn’t just a signal of how we’re feeling for others to see. Smiling makes a difference in how we are feeling and how we perceive day-to-day events and social situations. Genuine Duchenne smiles, in particular, may offer social and mental health benefits as well, including:

  • Increased feelings of happiness since a genuine grin can trigger the release of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain

  • Reduced stress and anxiety, as research suggests that smiling may reduce an individual’s heart rate as well as their levels of cortisol, the stress hormone

  • Improved physical health, since a 2022 study shows that smiling may offer health benefits such as “beneficially impacting our physiology during acute stress, improved stress recovery, and reduced illness over time”

  • More social connections, as smiling can be a powerful form of nonverbal communication that can help people form relationships and feel close to one another—especially when the smiles are Duchenne

Tips for Duchenne smiling more

If you’re interested in reaping some of the benefits of Duchenne smiling as listed above, you may be wondering how you can smile this way more often. In general, Duchenne smiling comes naturally to most people. However, finding ways to reduce stress and increase joy in your life may help you naturally produce a real smile more frequently. First, you might consider cultivating a mindfulness meditation practice, since research shows that it can positively impact various aspects of one’s overall well-being—from emotional control and immune system functioning to relationship satisfaction. 

Next, you might be intentional about discovering which activities in your life bring you joy and engaging in them more often, whether that’s a craft, sport, hobby, or spending time with friends. Finally, if you suspect you may have a mental health condition that’s holding you back from feeling happy, you might consider meeting with a mental health professional for an evaluation. Common symptoms of depression, for instance, include feelings of hopelessness, low energy, and a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, which can make experiencing joy and resulting smiles difficult. However, depression and many other mental health conditions are treatable; a qualified healthcare professional can provide an accurate diagnosis and suggest treatment options.

Unleash the power of emotion and transform your life

How online therapy can help

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, a trained professional can offer support and treatment options. If you’re experiencing another mental or emotional challenge that’s preventing you from finding happiness or contentment in your life, such as low self-esteem, effects from past trauma, or relationship problems, for instance, a therapist may be able to help with these as well. Their job is to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can express your thoughts and emotions and learn positive coping mechanisms along the way.

For those who are interested in pursuing therapy, there are various options available when it comes to treatment formats. If you’re interested in meeting with a provider in person, you can search for one in your local area. If you’d prefer to meet with someone virtually from the comfort of home, you might consider online therapy. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat from anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that both therapeutic formats can offer similar benefits in many cases, and online sessions are also typically more cost-effective than in-person visits for those experiencing financial barriers to care. Either way, support from a qualified therapist is available if you’re looking for guidance in handling any mental or emotional challenges you may be facing.

Takeaway

A Duchenne smile is typically an easily recognizable, natural smile that often conveys emotions like joy, happiness, or amusement. Smiling has an impact on our overall health, linking both our mental and physical well-being in various ways. If challenging life circumstances or a mental health condition is making it difficult for you to experience happiness, meeting with a therapist may be helpful.

Seeking to improve your mental health?
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started