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Your Face on Happiness

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woman smiling

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How our expressions can show delight, even across different cultures.

Our ability to say so many things through our facial expressions is one of the cool things about the human body—and experience. A slight raise of the eyebrow across the dinner table might clue in a spouse, giving a hint to stop talking about a delicate subject in front of friends. A little lip twist between two people might convey a flirtation, or a sneer, or a private joke.

A new study has found that of our many facial expressions, happiness is the most nuanced.

The research, out of Ohio State University, discovered that happiness has 17 distinct expressions, relating to things such as cheer, delight or contentment. The difference might a be a tiny crinkle around the eyes, for example. Compare that with only three expressions used to convey fear, four to express surprise, and five each for sadness and anger.

The study used computer algorithms, comparing 821 English words that described emotions and cross referencing them against 7.2 million images of facial expressions of people from a variety of cultures living in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. The words had been translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi and Russian. The researchers determined that the human face can contort in 16,384 ways, using all the various muscles, but only 35 emotions were deemed cross-cultural; appearing in the same way across the countries and people represented. They have found that the largest number of universal expressions related to feelings of joyful.

“This was delightful to discover,” wrote Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University, and study co-author, “because it speaks to the complex nature of happiness."


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a wellness writer based in Savannah. She's been a contributor to Spirituality & Health for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle. 


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