THE THERAPEUTIC POWER OF A DUCHENNE SMILE

“1… 2… 3… CHEESE!”

If you’re like most of the Western world, this cue prompts you to turn up the corners of your mouth, “smiling for the camera.” However, this smile says little about our actual feelings or happiness and more about our cultural tendency to “fake it” for memory purposes. But what’s the real difference, other than some abstract difference in feeling and emotion?

The difference between an artificial smile and a genuine emotion-driven smile was discovered by French physician Duchenne de Boulogne. While studying the physiology of facial expressions in the mid-19th century, Duchenne discerned two very different types of smiles. The first involves only the zygomatic major muscle, raising the corners of the mouth. This smile is a non-Duchenne smile and reflects only the desire to be or look happy.

The second smile uses the zygomatic major muscle, as well as the orbicularis oculi muscle around the eyes, raising both the corners of the mouth, as well as raising the cheeks and forming crow’s feet around the eyes. You guessed it! This is the genuine smile, the later-named Duchenne smile.

Pop Quiz

Let’s take a quick quiz to test what we’ve learned so far! Which is the genuine smile?

In other words, in which picture does celebrity chef and host Rachael Ray look genuinely happy, rather than just

looking, flashing a smile for the camera? That’s right: picture A is the Duchenne, genuine smile. Notice how the eyes crinkle, and the smile is guided by the drawing up of the cheeks and corners of the mouth, rather than the grimace, or simple flashing of the teeth in picture B.

So how is the Duchenne smile related to therapeutic laughter?

The Power of a Duchenne Smile

During his studies, Duchenne stumbled upon the amazing power of genuine smiles, often found between mothers and newborns or two people genuinely happy in love. These smiles produce feelings of wellbeing and trigger empathy.

In fact, these genuine smiles serve as “windows to the future”–as predictors of the smiler’s longevity. Those found smiling genuinely in yearbook photos in the 1950s were interviewed thirty years later and showed a greater predisposition to health, leading to some early studies linking happiness and longer lives.

Learning to smile even through difficult times helps the body perceive challenges differently. Debra Norwood of Laughter Lawyer USA uses an interesting practice to help people who are ill or under stress to trigger their brains into feeling the emotions of well-being, inducing a relaxed state or state of heightened self-awareness.

She knows that there is no value in telling someone, “Smile! You’ll feel better!”, like so many well-intentioned people do. Instead, she treats the person with respect, recognizing that maybe a laugh or social smile is not appropriate, yet they can sustain a grimace for at least a minute.

The results are outstanding. The brain accepts the sensory input as genuine, and there’s a nervous system response that helps improve mood slightly. The cognitive side also starts laughing at how ridiculous the fake smiling is.. in turn creating a real smile! At the very least, it breaks the ice among strangers and produces a sense of camaraderie.

Indeed, for stroke victims whose faces have been paralyzed on one side, using a straw or pencil gripped between the teeth may give much-needed neural memory triggers to recreate the emotions found in a smile.

But is this a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to feeling better? As a facilitator for an addiction recovery group, Debra believes instead that it’s what they call a “ziff”–acting “as if”, until you achieve the desired result. In other words, genuinely working on achieving a Duchenne smile, not just through the act of smiling, but also by interacting with others in a loving and genuine way, can have powerful results!

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