Today, let us forge our own happiness. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Hamlet talks to his father's
ghost and curses his mother:
O most pernicious woman!Smiles can be pretty frightening.
"The skull of life suddenly showed through its smile,"
Wrote Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
That one may smile and smile, and be a villain;
So what do smiles really mean? Nineteenth-century
scientists were obsessed with the human head and
face. They measured skulls and tried to correlate
brain size with ability. Phrenologists tried to
learn human characteristics from the shapes of
skulls. Criminologists tried to define the criminal
The French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne mapped
100 facial muscles in 1862. In the course of that
work, he had something to say about smiling. He
pointed out that false, or even half-hearted,
smiles involved only muscles of the mouth. But
"the sweet emotions of the soul," he said, activate the
pars lateralis muscle around the eyes.
Since then, physiologists have talked about the
Duchenne marker in a smile. It's a slight crinkling
of crows-feet and a droop in the eyelid toward the
temples -- along with a lift of the cheeks and the
corners of the mouth. You know the sign. You
recognize true delight in a friend's face.
Now psychologist Paul Ekman has gone back to the
smile and found out something very important about
it. The Duchenne smile, it seems, is accompanied by
increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex --
known to be the seat of positive emotions.
The most fascinating thing Ekman found is: You can
work it in reverse. If you put on a Duchenne smile,
you can activate your pleasure centers. You can
literally make yourself happy by smiling. But not
completely so. A spontaneous smile activates even
more reactions than you can access with a voluntary
So it's no surprise that we're put off by a false
smile. Once we know the real thing, the fake
becomes offensive. I've always had particular
trouble with the classic fixed smile of a ballerina
-- for just that reason. There's no Duchenne
marker, and it chills me.
Ekman has shown us something we've suspected for a
long time. It is that we create our own realities.
You cannot fake happiness, but you can create it
within yourself. And when you do, you deeply touch
those around you. Another Frenchman, the
17th-century moralist La Rochefoucauld, had the
idea. He wrote,
To win that wonder of the world,
A smile from her bright eyes,
I fought my King, and would have hurled
The gods out of their skies.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Goleman, D., When Is a Smile Really a Smile?.
New York Times, SCIENCE, Tuesday, Oct.
26, 1993, pp. B-5 and B-10.
The Brain Behind That Happy Face.
Science, Vol. 262, 15 Oct., 1993, pg.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.