How Can You Tell if Someone is Truly Happy?

Look at Their Eyes

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D.

What is Happiness? That’s been debated since antiquity, rendering a myriad of definitions. Is “happiness” used to describe the general state of “well-being” or “flourishing” or are we talking the psychological sense, such as “depression” or “tranquility.” Writes Dan Haybron, Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University, “An important project in the philosophy of happiness is simply getting clear on what various writers are talking about: what are the important meanings of the term and how do they connect?” [1]

Lest we go down that philosophical rat hole, suffice it to say that it is far easier to spot happiness than to define it.

For example, can you tell which one of the pictures below is a person (my colleague Kasia, from the Center for Body Language!) with a genuine smile? Who is the happy one?

Spoiler alert—these are both examples of authentic smiles—one more demonstrable than the other. But more on this in a minute.

In our last blog, we discussed the medieval ghoulish history of Micro Expressions. Neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne analyzed the heads of guillotine victims during the French Revolution to study how the face muscles worked.

Today, much of what we know about Micro Expressions can be attributed to Duchenne’s grisly work. Building on Duchenne’s legacy, Drs. Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen conducted research that identified 42 facial muscles responsible for expression. These muscles can make over 10,000 configurations, but only a third of them (3,000) are related to emotion. Eventually, their research distilled 7 universal facial expressions that are intrinsic to everyone across all cultures and ethnicities. But first a refresher on Micro Expressions.

What are Micro Expressions?

Micro Expressions are involuntary facial movements that last a half second or less. While Micro Expressions are not proof of lying per se, they are reliable signs of emotions that may be tied to falsehoods or anxiety. These faint facial expressions could be early signs of emotion, the subtle experience of an emotion, or an emotion that is deliberately concealed. There are 7 observable Micro Expressions: happiness, anger, surprise, disgust, contempt, sadness, and neutral.

Happiness and the Authentic Smile

So, how can you tell if someone is truly happy—or masking another emotion?

While it starts with the mouth, it’s actually all about the eyes! A sign of happiness is when the sides of the lips rise symmetrically (as in the first picture on the left). In an authentic smile the eyelids drop, and the eyebrows lower accompanied by a symmetrical smile (see the picture on the right).

Duchenne’s research showed that the Zygomatic muscles that span the side of the face and attach to the corners of the mouth are also are attached to the Orbicularis Oculi. The Orbicularis Oculi are the independent muscles that separately pull the eyes back, producing “crow’s feet”.  Through his experiments Duchenne proved that, unlike the “crow’s feet” muscles, we can control the Zygomatic muscles to fake happiness or to signal subordination.

According to Allen and Barbara Pease, husband and wife body language experts, an authentic smile should be accompanied by wrinkles around the eyes adding, “insincere people smile only with their mouth.” [2] Today, a true or genuine smile is called the “Duchenne smile”.

The Merrill Institute

Stay tuned to our next blog as we individually analyze the Micro Expressions of contempt and disgust—two emotions prominent in the collapse of many types of relationships.

Contact The Merrill Institute to learn more about Body Language Training and Micro-Expressions



[1] Haybron, Dan, “Happiness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =


[2] Pease, Allan & Barbara. The Definitive Book of Body Language (pp. 66-67). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.