What Marlon Brando Taught Me About Being Happy

image of marlon brandoI was at the annual Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford on Saturday with my two boys, who are both under 12 years old.

There were about 60,000 people there. Most of them appeared to be in my way. And eating chips.

Rob asks me “Daddy, this place if full of people who look like they don’t want to be here. They’re really unhappy!”

Maybe it was the weather…

…is this the worst UK summer in memory? Maybe it was the 10 a.m. Scrumpy (I do like a drink myself, but 10 a.m?) 

But all of the faces were glum, grim. Not even neutral. Glum and grim.

Our faces tell others what we are feeling. Evolution has made it this way. If the look you see is anger and hatred, you can take some small backward steps. And if the look you see is that still, steady gaze with an almost imperceptible narrowing of the eyes and a one millimetre pout, you can take some small forward steps.

Now we all know that our emotions drive our behaviours. It’s all a part of the success cascade…

conditioning leads to…

belief leads to…

emotion leads to…

behaviour leads to…


What Constantin Stanislavski understood, was it works the other way. It’s a two-way street.

There’s method in the madness…

Stanislavski was a Russian theatre director who invented method acting. Method acting was popularised by Marlon Brando. The key issue in method acting is that the actor does not act. The actor creates the emotions the character is supposed to feel. The actor really feels them. Marlon conjures them up. Out of thin air. Marlon was not acting happy or sad, he was happy or sad.

Marlon used the As If principle: If you act as if you are happy, you will feel happy.

This works. And it’s not happy-clappy positive-thinking-is-all-you-need nonsense.

Here comes the science bit…

Paul Ekman at the University of California has been looking into this for some time. He doesn’t do happy-clappy. He’s a scientist.

When people put a smile on their face – a proper smile, lasting for twenty seconds or more, not some dead-eyed showing of the teeth favoured by C-list celebs, they reported feeling happier than those who didn’t do this (and the experiments were set up to hide what Ekman was looking for).

Also, there were physiological symptoms as well – in those who smiled their heart rates dropped and their skin temperatures increased – just as Ekman had discovered in “natural” happy states.

California dreaming…

Making sure this was not just a local California thing, Ekman got on his bike and tested this all over the world. He saw it everywhere. You can make yourself happy and change your physiology, just by smiling.

It works for other emotions as well – anger, sadness etc, but why bother unless feigning anger to manipulate others is your thing, you psycho.

Ekman would, like all good scientists I am sure, acknowledge that there had been others before him who had also investigated the As If principle and our ability to influence how we feel.

And it turns out that there are many aspects of our behaviour that can make us feel happier.

See me after…

Remember that teacher that used to tell you to sit up straight, to stop dragging your heels, to pull your socks up…turns out she was right. This all helps.

Turns out taking long strides, swinging your arms and holding your head up high makes you happier than taking small steps with your hands to the side and staring at your feet.

I find all this so very heartening…

…because it adds yet another lever for us to pull that can help us shape our experience on this planet. And that’s no bad thing.

Some sad souls don’t believe these levers exist. But this whole argument is only going one way; as time passes, we find we have more and more control over ourselves.

And that’s something to smile about.

(Thanks to Prof Richard Wiseman and his new book Rip It Up for inspiring this post.)


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply