Funny Business with Jane Wells

Smile Though Your Head Is Breaking...

Here's a business idea to turn that frown upside down.

The Happiness Hat

It's the Happiness Hat, a contraption designed by MIT grad and artist Lauren McCarthy.

The knit cap senses whether or not you're smiling and how big the smile is.

If it's not big enough, a built-in sensor activates a sharp metal rod which pokes you in the back of the head.

The point?

Smile, though your head is breaking.

McCarthy demonstrates how it works, and maybe why, in this video:

"Through repeated use of this conditioning device you can train your brain to smile all the time," McCarthy says on her Web site.

But will it make me happy?

"Just using the muscles to smile releases endorphins that can make you feel happier," McCarthy tells me. "Seeing someone else smiling triggers mirror neurons in your own brain, causing you to unconsciously smile yourself." Psychology Todayappears to back her up on this.

McCarthy says it took her three weeks to create the hat, and the sensor and metal rod run on an Arduino board, which is an open source software platform. "The pain feedback is not excruciating, but it is considerably uncomfortable," she says, "a sensation that the user will most likely want to relieve if possible."

The public response to the Happiness Hat since McCarthy posted it online has caught her offguard, but she currently has no plans to start selling them (think of the gag gift possibilities!). "The actual materials required to make the hat are not too expensive," she says. But this is about art, not commerce. "One reason I chose this handmade aesthetic was to kind of humorously suggest that we could all theoretically make things and use them, and perhaps metaphorically thinking, we all do build internal systems to regulate our social behaviors and self-preservation." Ok, so she talks like a high-concept artist, but I get the idea. We all force ourselves to smile at times when happiness is the last thing on our minds. Is that a good thing, even if we don't mean it? McCarthy wonders. "How often does the appearance we project misrepresent what we are really thinking and feeling? How do we reconcile these ideas? Could we use technology to teach us how to be human or 'fit in' better, and is this what we want?"

Ok, this is why I'd never make it as an artist because I'm more concerned with figuring out what to make for dinner tonight than reconciling my appearance versus reality.

But these are important questions!

And the Happiness Hat is a fun way to provoke discussion.

McCarthy says she's working on "several more personal tools that both train and question the small gestures that define our social interactions--I am thinking a lot of about touch, hearing, eye contact." Oooo, maybe like underwear that shocks you if you break eye contact? Could be interesting! And a huge money maker! Yes, you see what motivates me. I really think McCarthy could make a killing selling Happiness Hats, but she says that's not the point. So I asked her how she IS paying the bills. McCarthy is working as a TA as she continues her studies at UCLA, and she's saved money working over the last year as a designer and builder of interactive installations for museums and galleries. Plus she does some freelance working writing computer code on the side (did I mention the MIT part?).

As for her unusual artistic experiments, "I am really interested in the way that existing systems can be used to bring art to everyday life instead of restricting it to galleries and the art community."

Instead of art on a wall, you have art on your head.

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