7 Universally Recognized Facial Expressions of Emotion

Researchers through over 40 years of investigation have identified seven “basic” emotions with corresponding universally displayed and understood facial expressions.


The expression of joy communicates a state of happiness, pleasure, enjoyment and ecstasy. A true expression of happiness involves both the upper part and lower part of the face. Whereas most of us relate happiness with a pull up and back of the lip corners, a critical element to the emotion is also the contraction of the orbicularis oculi, the muscle surrounding the eyes. This true smile, also known as the Duchenne smile, is anatomically distinct and indicates a genuine feeling of happiness.


Expressions of sadness communicate a message related to loss of someone or something valued. Sadness is a very difficult expression to feign because of the inner brow raise, in addition to lip corner depressing that occurs with sadness. Only a small percentage of the population can raise their inner brows on demand but inevitably this raise of the inner brow occurs in everyone who experiences a genuine felling of sadness.


Anger can range from annoyance to outright rage. Although there are many different intensities of anger they all carry a similar expression. In anger we often see a lowering of the brows and glaring of the eyes. Tightened lips are also a common factor in angry faces. Anger serves as a warning to others about our current emotional state. Anger also serves as a motivator to work through obstacles and to reach our desired goals.


The expression of fear is a warning signal and is triggered in situations where there is a threat of danger. Fear is also part of the freeze, fight or flight response system that humans and animals alike have developed as a survival mechanism. When we feel fear, our bodies respond by shutting down unnecessary systems and rushing blood to the larger muscles in our legs in preparation for defense.


This powerful emotion evolves from a feeling of aversion towards an object or a person. Sometimes just the thought of something repulsive can bring on the emotion and expression of disgust.


A feeling of condescension towards another person, or a feeling of moral superiority is the root of the emotion of contempt. The expression of contempt is unique in that it requires asymmetry. While all the above emotional expressions can be bilateral, contempt is the only emotion that has to occur on only one side of the face.


The expression of surprise is the briefest of all the emotions. It occurs in response to an unforeseen event. Surprise will usually be followed immediately by another emotion such as anger if the surprise was unwanted, joy if the surprise is a welcomed one or fear if there is danger accoompanying the unanticipated event. Surprise can also turn into shock, a more enduring emotion.