The Face of Happiness
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2013
Josie Glausiusz, with whom I worked at the old Discover Magazine, has a nice piece about the facial expression of joy. It appears today at The Last Word on Nothing, a blog run by another friend, Ann Finkbeiner:
I’ve often thought that old books – both the classics and the more obscure tomes that one finds tucked away in dusty old bookshops – deserve their own reviews. Some are beautifully written but often ignored. Others are just plain weird, but worth a look (and a laugh). So here goes with my first “really old book review”: Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872.
As biologist Edward O. Wilson explains in his introduction to the work – published in So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, “The Expression of Emotions” is both an “old-fashioned descriptive treatise” and “rich and accurate enough in interpretation to have served as part of the foundation of modern psychology.” Emotions are instincts that have evolved via natural selection, Darwin claimed, serving as communication signals that enable individuals to survive in complex societies.
Since they are inborn, such expressions should be found consistently in different societies throughout the world. So Darwin drew upon his own observations of the indigenous inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, as well as accounts of world travelers to southern Africa, India and Australia. He gained insights from earlier thinkers and writers from Homer to Shakespeare, and the book is liberally dotted with entertaining quotations.
“The Expression of Emotions” is a fat tome divided into chapters describing every emotion from dejection to sulkiness, surprise, horror, shyness and blushing, anger, disgust, patience and pride. I’ll choose, however, to focus on my favorite chapter: “Joy, High Spirits, Love, Tender Feelings, Devotion.” As Darwin notes in the opening to the chapter, “Joy, when intense, leads to various purposeless movements–to dancing about, clapping the hands, stamping & c., and to loud laughter […] We clearly see this in children at play, who are almost incessantly laughing.”
He discusses in detail the physical movements and physiological changes that occur when we laugh; thus: “During excessive laughter the whole body is often thrown backward and shakes, or is almost convulsed; the respiration is much disturbed; the head and face become gorged with blood, with the veins distended; and the orbicular muscles are spasmodically contracted in order to protect the eyes. Tears are freely shed.”
Most moving are Darwin’s tender observations of the first smiles of his own children. (Together with his wife and cousin Emma Wedgewood, he had ten of them, and was a devoted father.) At the age of 45 days, one of his infants, “being in a happy frame of mind, smiled; that is, the corners of the mouth were retracted and simultaneously the eyes became decidedly bright.” Similarly, affection, “a pleasurable sensation,” “generally causes a gentle smile and some brightening of the eyes.” A strong desire to touch the beloved person is commonly felt, “hence, we long to clasp in our arms those whom we tenderly love.”
Not every expression of affection is universal, Darwin observed. Europeans are accustomed to kissing as a mark of affection, yet the practice is unknown “with the New Zealanders, Tahitians, Papuans, Australians, Somals of Africa, and the Esquimaux.” The desire for close contact with a loved one is so innate, however, that “in various parts of the world, kissing is replaced “by the rubbing of noses, as with the New Zealanders and Laplanders, [or] by the rubbing or patting of the arms, breasts, or stomachs.” Perhaps that’s why, when Darwin asked a four-year-old child to describe what was meant by being in good spirits, the child replied, “It is laughing, talking, and kissing.” It would be difficult, Darwin concluded, “to give a truer and more practical definition.”