Can a hat make you happy?
This hat might, if you wear it long enough. The hat features a smile sensor that records the curvature of your mouth, and if you're not smiling, it pokes you with a small metal spike to remind you to do so. The Happiness Hat, as it's called, is a conceptual art piece by interactive designer Lauren McCarthy, who has observed that, "a smile is a simple action that has the power to make you and everyone around you feel better."
Of course the idea has a gloss of silliness to it. Using such strong negative conditioning to invoke positive behavior might do more harm that good, and the practicality of smiling 100% of the time (or else enduring what the artist calls "intense pain") is questionable. But leaving those objections to the side for a moment, there are some valid and useful psychological principles underpinning the concept. The hat's design is premised on the facial feedback hypothesis, which suggests that "putting on" a facial expression associated with a particular emotion can actually create the feeling of that emotion. A notable 1988 experiment demonstrated this effect by asking participants to read comics while unknowingly contracting certain facial muscles. One group of participants held the pencil between their lips, inducing a frown, while another group held the pencil between their teeth, causing a slight smile. (You can try these yourself and see how you feel.) A control group just held the pencil in their hands. Sure enough, the "teeth" group with the induced smiles found the cartoons funnier than the other two groups.
In recent years, this idea has been expanded upon to show unconscious emotional effects from a variety of gestures, suggesting that angry movements like giving the middle finger actually make you judge others as more hostile, or that nodding your head can increase your receptiveness to a stimulus. It's fascinating, but also unsettling, to realize that our bodies can have powerful effects on our minds without our being aware of it.
The Happiness Hat also purports to have a social effect. If you smile, then perhaps those around you will also smile, setting off a wave of contagious positive emotion. Certainly this is what McDonald's is striving for when it promises a smile with every order, and there is reason to believe they're right. The discovery of mirror neurons, which are cells in the brain that fire both when an action is performed and when it's observed, suggests that like other primates we are unconsciously disposed towards "aping" what we observe. So interacting with people who smile, even if the smile is not genuine, might just make us feel like smiling ourselves.
Conventional wisdom tells us that true happiness comes from within, and that the positive feelings derived from external sources like a car or a pair of shoes or a smile-sensing hat are not "real happiness." But as we learn more about the brain and emotion, we're realizing that the lines here are blurry. If the emotion we're experiencing feels like happiness, if it makes us smile and gets those reward chemicals flowing, and in turn makes us friendlier, more creative, and more likely to connect in a positive way with those around us, who is to say whether it's real or not?
I'm not suggesting that the accumulation of material things is a route to lasting contentment, but merely that the stuff in our lives may be more influential than we think. Our things have powerful unconscious effects on us, through form, color, texture, aroma, and more. These effects don't have to be as Draconian as the Happiness Hat to impact us in profound ways. The softness of a rug under your feet when you step out of bed in the morning or a sweet-smelling soap in the shower may set the tone for a mood that colors your entire day.
On this blog I'll be exploring the subtle, often unconscious effects that designed objects and spaces have on our emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and well-being. As a designer, I believe that more attention to these effects can have lots of positive repercussions through psychological mechanisms just like the ones described in this post. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on objects that influence you, and exploring the reasons why in the months to come.