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Does It Matter Whether a Smile Is Real?

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The relationship of our happiness to our willingness to fake it has been the topic of debate for a long time, and many a bromide supports the idea that it’s a good thing to fake it if need be. Consider these:

Fake it til you make it.

Go through the motions, and the motives will follow.

Keep smiling—it will make people wonder what you’ve been up to.

Keep your chin up!

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

Put on a happy face! (my video selection above, from the film Bye, Bye, Birdie, 1963)

Of course, there are many sources that repeat this general idea endlessly. But there are also sources that report on the nuances and limitations of such ideas, that qualify the findings of all this research that supposedly demands smiling even if you have to fake it.

Follow with me a kind of trajectory:

First, there’s this kind of thing that notes we have plenty of reasons to smile even when we don’t feel like it. Even when you go to a more professional psychology source that cites particular studies, there’s a kind of silly gloss on it all that bugs me. Take the final study noted on the PSYBLOG—the report here ignores the fact that causation has not been established, only the barest correlation. Photos of baseball players over the years show that the ones that smiled more lived longer. What this most likely proves is not that if you smile more, you will live longer, but that if you are healthy, you will smile more.

I get purely annoyed by this kind of thing. Partly because few of these sources even acknowledge that there is also plenty of research that shows the opposite—the fact that faking happiness can in itself have a negative impact. Here, a study notes that fake smiles can deepen depression, and here that faking happiness at work over time has negative health consequences.

As an aside, I think that the questionable research about smiling at work and the increased productiveness of employees in a good mood is particularly dangerous. While the Wall Street Journal here gives a well-balanced sense that it’s not a matter of axing the less cheerful, but of businesses actually taking some responsibility to provide resources for good cheer, all too often we see imperatives that become dictatorial and inhumane, as in the situation described here of the enforced-smile McDonald’s counter clerk. Not to mention those hideous hiring tests that seek to classify personalities and refuse jobs to those who aren’t as perky as others, no matter their competence.

All of the articles that I read about negative consequences of faking or that call into question the assertions about the benefits of positivity, of course, have to mention those positivity assertions. There’s an odd unevenness in this regard. The sane side has to acknowledge the overly simplified positivity side, but the positivity side feels no compunction whatsoever to mention the nuances and limitations of this body of research.

In a recent example, Jane Brody wrote a column for the New York Times, “A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full.” If you read the comments, you will note that there are many who leap to agree and many who bare their teeth and attack the Brody bromides. Yet, when Brody followed up about the responses she received, she acknowledged only the “hundreds of comments from readers who testified to the value of living life as a glass half full.” She doesn’t deign to even acknowledge the other kinds of responses she received.

Don’t we have to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong when professional science journalists won’t even acknowledge that the science is mixed at best on these matters and that there are people who hold different perspectives? It taxes my credulity, especially when even an undergraduate college student can summarize the research so clearly in such a short paper as this one. The student clearly acknowledges there’s only a minor correlation, but even she has wrongly concluded that “smiling can never hurt, so go ahead and try it out!”

And let me observe that people have been trying to prove a stronger correlation and causation since Darwin’s time. They have been unable to demonstrate the facial feedback theory in all these years in spite of overwhelming resources spent toward that end.

However, you can go on to find scientists who are laboring to truly understand emotions in a complex and useful way—and one that won’t be used to hammer people over the head uselessly and cruelly or dismissively. One of these I’ll discuss in my next blog post, but, for now, I invite you to head over to the BBC Spot the Fake Smile test.

If we’re going to be constantly interacting with people who believe that faking their smiles will actually make them happier and that it will earn them our trust, forgiveness, sexual interest, and a whole host of other benefits, then perhaps we want to be more savvy about these fake smiles. I scored 19/20 right, which is evidently quite unusual. Maybe I should publish a paper about the benefits of skepticism: it helps you spot one of those fake cheery people from a mile away. And run like hell away from them and their agendas.

9 responses »

  1. Hi Lisa,

    This made me think of a famous WWI song, so I looked up a bit about it. The following ripped from Wiki:

    Felix Lloyd Powell (23 May 1878 – 10 February 1942) was a British Staff Sergeant most famous for writing the music for marching song “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile”, in 1915. The words were written by his brother George Henry Powell (under the pseudonym George Asaf), and the song was entered into a World War I competition for “best morale-building song”. It won first prize and was noted as “perhaps the most optimistic song ever written”.

    George Powell was a pacifist and a CO in WWI.

    Felix Powell committed suicide in 1942. Wearing the uniform of the Peacehaven Home Guard, he shot himself in the heart using his own rifle.

  2. Hi Lisa:

    Thank you for this. I have a hereditary disorder of connective tissue and autoimmune disease. For the most part, I manage pretty well, and I do “fake it” in certain situations, just to make things easier on other people, not for my own health. I’m thoroughly sick of the “optimism” movement, which encourages me to deny my losses rather than acknowledge reality and move forward into a productive life anyway.

    Some resources I might suggest for others who face chronic illness or disorders: Patricia Fennel’s books on dealing with chronic illness, JoAnne LeMaistre’s book on chronic illness, and Brightsided by Barbara Ehrenreich. No fake smiles here!

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and for recommending those books. Of course, I know and love Ehrenreich, but the other two are new to me, and I’ll put them on my list.

      And I like your point about “faking it” for others. I remember discovering that in the disability community this is often referred to as “passing,” just as it is when used about those with some African heritage who pass as Caucasian. It would be interesting to explore the distinctions between faking and passing.

  3. I had a similar concern over smiles when I blogged on a Charlie Chaplin song called, of course, Smile. The lyrics made me cringe. I agree with you though, the fake smile has consequences …some of which we may have yet to see if ‘friendly robots’ are to be the future. I took your BBC test and scored 16. What was noticeable for me was how the face at the end of the smile came about starkly. That is, there wasn’t a flow coming out of the smile …the final expression just didn’t match.

    But yeah, I wonder if the fake smile will eventually become as meaningless as the Facebook ‘friend’. Smiles, especially with new faces, are instantaneous impressions upon us ….but perhaps like advertising and most things in our ADHD lifestyles, smiles too may become something that we learn to quickly shrug off. Hoping of course, to get to something deeper.

    Like that genuine expression ‘after’ the smile.

    • Yes, indeed. I think we all have some stake in the honest expression. It’s become a cultural obsession, albeit a secondary one. I think of the TV show, “Lie to Me,” which was based on trying to read the truth in facial expressions. Of course, one of the things that is also likely to happen is that people will get better at faking their smiles. Uh-oh.

    • I’ve always found “Smile” freaky, for two reasons: first, the music is sort of sad and unsettling (Romantic in a strange way), and second, because the song’s lyrics (and Chaplin didn’t write the words) do not seem an anthem for positivism, but rather the soliloquy of someone trying desperately not to be depressed.

      I felt this way about the song, I think, because I first heard the jazz singer Holly Cole sing it, with that spooky elastic voice of hers ( The Dean Martin version sounds sad, too.

      MJ, though, tried to overlook these tensions. I note that the original version of the song performed with lyrics, sung by Nat King Cole, does overlook these tensions, with only the strings representing the gloom implied by the need for this narrative.

  4. I’d also recommend _The promise of happiness_ by Sara Ahmed which takes a provocative look at “the happiness industry,” and how certain groups are viewed as threatening precisely b/c they refuse to fake happiness. The groups she concentrates upon are “feminist killjoys,” “unhappy queers,” and “melancholic migrants,” but certainly others–such as the chronically ill–could be added to this list. (And I agree with you that the parallels between faking and passing could be fruitfully explored!–especially with an eye to the psychic harm done to the one faking/passing.)

  5. Shelley, I will definitely look up the Ahmed book.


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