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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.

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

Dear Readers,

In my continuing attempt to try new things, I present to you today a guest blog post. A while back, my friend and colleague John King (also one of my most faithful readers and commentators on the blog) emailed me separately a longer series of thoughts he’d had in response to one of my posts. Casually, I said that I should make him a guest blogger, and, lo and behold, he then sent me this erudite little essay.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning my responsibilities. The discipline has been too good for me. But I’m hoping to post maybe one guest blog a month to bring more variety to the contemplations here. So here’s to a spirit of experimentation. Let me know what you think.


* * *

The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

by John King

I am not certain that, as an ad for The Secret proclaims, Shakespeare actually knew “the Secret,” but I am quite sure P. T. Barnum knew the secret behind “the Secret.”

“Smile and the world is yours,” Henry Miller writes in Black Spring. “Smile through the death rattle—it makes it easier for those you leave behind. Smile, damn you! The smile that never comes off!

The Will to Happiness, a.k.a. Positivism, is a willful disengagement with the real world, a form of denial, of censorship. This is precisely the sort of thinking that led the Bush administration to scoff at “the reality-based community” as it planned its war in Iraq. Death toll of the Iraq War: 162,000. This fact would be shameful, if reality is a meaningful entity. But the mainstream media machine, including the mainstream punditry, has never reported the actual death-toll, treating this essential statistic like a psychological tar baby.

This is an affirmation of the unexamined life.

Phobias about negativity, about depression, bad news, agita, and strife, are based on a fear of psychic vampirism, that others will drain you of your vitality, your confidence, your mental health. Schopenhauer believed that the boundaries between others and ourselves is illusory, and in moments of moral clarity, heroes see how contiguous we are with humanity, and behave accordingly. But it takes a profoundly strong person to acknowledge this truth, and there is not always something such a person can do to help others, relieve them of certain brutalities and cruelties of existence.

“Can the world be as sad as it seems?” asks the narrator of Throbbing Gristle’s “The Old Man Smiled.” Marlow loses his mind and his humanity when he sees enslaved Africans in Heart of Darkness. His racism and inability to cope with his experiences begins there and then.

The world of business is systematically skewed towards simplicity and optimism in its communication. According to Kitty O. Locker’s Business and Administrative Communication, business writing should exhibit something called “you-attitude,” a focus only on the immediate concerns of the recipient of a message, without burdening the recipient with any of the sender’s extraneous concerns. And all messages should also feature positive emphasis, whenever possible. On The Simpsons, Mr. Burns re-labels a nuclear meltdown at his power plant as an “un-requested fission surplus.”

The opposite of the Will to Happiness, what we might call Romantic melancholia, is of course also ridiculously out of touch with reality. Shakespeare mocked that self-indulgent impulse in 1602, in Twelfth Night, in the character of Count Orsino, who pleads “If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” (This is, incidentally, more or less how I feel when I hear nearly anything by Abba.) Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, Goethe wasn’t kidding about the Romantic sorrows of young Werther, and today’s goth kids lack the sense not to stew in their own weltschmerz as an actual lifestyle choice.

According to the early twentieth century philosopher Henri Bergson, the most primal laughter is a manifestation of the incongruous knowledge that our minds exist in something like a pure mode of being, godlike, but our minds are, nonetheless, attached to a body that is destined to fail, to decay, to die. This is the foundation of Samuel Beckett’s entire literary and dramatic career. This is the foundation, too, of the mythos of Beckett’s beloved idol, Buster Keaton: the expressive consciousness of his face, juxtaposed with the improbable feats of his body as he strives to contend with the gross, sublime physicality of the world. This philosophy is also the core of the dark, ranting comedy apparatus of Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer.

I often find myself drawn to the honesty of cartoons, a genre in which the content is considered culturally debased, and so can afford more satirical gravity than what supposed grown-ups watch. (An inexpensive observation: The Simpsons offers profoundly more reality than Undercover Boss.)

No cartoon I know of has more to say about this subject than that 1990s counter-culture classic, Ren and Stimpy, in particular an episode called “Stimpy’s Invention.” It depicts the terror of the Will to Happiness in a way similar to Henry Miller in Black Spring, but far more disturbingly, in Bergsonian terms. Stimpy, the ever-optimistic and cheerful orange cat, is wracked with empathetic sorrow when his companion, Ren the chihuahua, is not happy. So he builds a helmet that alters Ren’s brainwaves that force Ren’s mind into a happy state. The helmet that never comes off! The pressure of the Will to Happiness escalates.

Ultimately, the ability to voice discontent, pain, and sadness is cathartic. To silence such speech is to deny who and what we are, to deny even the possibility of knowing who and what we are, and so it diminishes who and what we can be.

John King is a creative writer, literary scholar, and journalist. His creative writing has appeared in Turnrow, Palooka, Gargoyle, Pearl, and Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, and is forthcoming from The Newer York. He regularly reviews books for The Literary Review and theater for Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a contributor to Celebrations magazine. He is currently serving as a composition sherpa at the University of Central Florida. His most recent works, a short-short story called “Perfection” and an essay called “The Muse of Florida,” will appear in the new book 15 Views of Orlando.

Smile or Die

Accusations of “hate” and “unhealthy” negativity are frequently made by those in the positivity camp against those who aren’t. It’s one of the ways that they shut down discussion and examination of the actual claims of positivity.

Yesterday, I got a new comment on one of my earlier posts—the one called “Not Sexy, Just Crazy.” The commenter accused me of “hate” because of my critique of those I see as promoting the false idea that positive attitude and vegan diets can be effective linchpins (all by themselves) of treating serious illness. On Thursday, I’ll take up an important distinction that this commenter made—that between cure and remission—but today I give you another wonderful RSA Animate video of Barbara Ehrenreich talking about how it is that positivity is often itself much more cruel than realism. In this video, Ehrenreich focuses on economic cruelty, but elsewhere she has addressed the issue in terms of her own experience with breast cancer.

I think that “hate” is much too strong an emotion for what I feel toward Kris Carr and those like her in the “heal yourself” and “be happy [whether you really are or not]” school of thought. However, this raises the question for me of what is actually deserving of hate. One reason why I don’t hate Kris Carr is that I don’t really know what she is thinking, and so perhaps she is sincere and perhaps she is deluding herself as much as everyone else. In that case, she certainly deserves pity more than anything near hate.

However, even though I reserve my hate for those who participate in less well-intentioned forms of harm (such as genocide and war-mongering), I do believe that those in the positivity movement often harm others and therefore deserve at least some kind of approbation. I think that group-think of most kinds is detestable, and I think that people who are so insecure about the “positive” path they are following that they can’t even hear or consider other kinds of paths, that they get furiously angry about anyone who questions whether or not their path is right for everyone…well, there’s just something supremely ironic about that.

I am bemused by all those positivity types who are so angry with me (and others) for not being one of them. They can tell me repeatedly that my anger isn’t “healthy,” but, whoa, they seem more angry than I am. That, I believe, is the result of false positivity—ultimate anger, disappointment, even cruelty and marginalization of others. Genuine positiveness is something else entirely.

Painful Positivity at the Gym

My Y uses these new computerized bikes, too. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Nistas of the U.S. Navy.

Mindless positivity is rampant at the Y where I belong. It’s all part of the gung-ho, cheerleader/coach kind of thing that is supposed to help motivate us non-athletes to get in better shape and, more subtly, part of the prosperity gospel that implies that God wants us to be happy and healthy, not to mention rich. Recently, the YMCA changed its official name to just “the Y,” and I had a momentary hope that the more supercilious aspects of the Christian basis of the Y would abate. It was only momentary.

* * *

There’s one indoor cycling instructor who otherwise teaches a great class. But at the end of each one, she calls out to each departing participant, “Have a blessed day.” She says “blessed” with two syllables, and I cringe every time.

* * *

One day, another spin instructor surprised the class with a lecture on excuses. “We all have problems,” she said. “Your back or your knee or your whatever shouldn’t get in your way. You just have to push yourself beyond it.” I looked around the room at us middle-aged professionals mixed with the occasional housewife. “I don’t let my aches and pains get in my way,” she smiled. “So, no excuses. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone!”

For a long time, it’s been well known that effective training takes sensitivity to where you are in the moment and is most effective when you push yourself only hard enough, not too hard. Haven’t these people ever heard of target heart rates or the ten-percent rule? I stared at the heart rate chart on the wall and wondered that no instructor in my spin classes ever mentions it.

I realized that most of these young-ish people who exercise several hours a day in their role as instructors simply think that most of us are lazy. They must get frustrated at not producing fitness “successes”—those who lose and keep off the extra pounds or who turn into ideal amateur athletes. But what I see is that their methods drive people away. The expectation of transformation is unrealistic. It’s hard to get past that sense of failure and just keep on muddling along at our distracted, so-so, not-top-priority way. Every January, I watch the result—the full classes that will gradually winnow down and then fill up before beach season with a whole different group. The Y will keep hounding us to bring in new members.

Last summer, in fact, I nearly became a total gym drop-out. I’ve belonged to the Y for several years, and have had some great instructors. But trends sweep the field of fitness just as they do other arenas, and lately one particular indoor bike company sold its bill of goods to my Y. These are sleek bikes with computerized screens, similar to the ones on the treadmills and Stairmasters upstairs. The old Schwinns are out.

Now in every class, we are constantly barraged with numbers. We are told repeatedly just where our RPMs should be. As a sometimes nod to the variability of our fitness, the instructors might say, “I won’t tell you where your tension level should be, but keep your RPMs up with the rest of us.” Others simply say, “Everyone should be running at 90 RPMs and a pressure reading of 14.” This is insane.

No doubt the numbers on the screen could be well used by individuals to compare their performance between one ride and the next, but the way the instructors have been taught by the company to use them, they create a Procrustean bike. They have eliminated one of the best things about previous cycling classes, which is their ability to accommodate anyone with any level of fitness. Our Y has already started designating which spin classes are “basic” and which are “advanced.” This is a totally unnecessary move and one that simply complicates busy people’s schedules. By golly, though, they have got to be using the technology in a high-profile way, and the only way to do that is to talk out loud about the numbers.

The bikes create a lot of these tail-wagging-dog issues. Spinning has for many years been done in dark rooms. The first time I ever went to a class, the fellow next to me told me that he’d managed to lose twenty pounds over the previous two years by sitting in the dark on the back row where no one bothered him. I myself enjoyed the darkness because it helped me concentrate on my own workout instead of watching what other people were doing, as is so often a problem in other kinds of exercise classes. Now, however, we are told that cycling in the dark is bad. Supposedly this is a general industry-wide discovery—“engagement is better”—but I recognize in it that one bike company’s influence. Their computer screens are not back-lit and can’t be used in the dark.

I have watched as the classes have become more and more dominated by younger people and the middle-aged people like me revert to the individual machines upstairs and drinking coffee in the lobby. But maybe, I think, this is the intention. Get the riff-raff out of the spin classes. Return spin to the kick-ass reputation it sometimes have. It is all about that image of what the Y is, and I imagine that attracting younger, more stylish members is a marketing goal.

My mind reels back to decades ago when I made my first decision to start working out. At the time I was a staff member at a university, and I convinced my friend and co-worker Charlene to go with me to the university gym. At one point, in the middle of our ride on the stationary bikes, she said, “Lisa, I don’t think we are really the types for this.”

It was true that we got some stares in the weight room. At the time it was inhabited mainly by men who looked as though they belonged there. We fielded a few mild insults and shaken heads over the low weights we would use. The guys would stand over us impatiently and sigh as we did our reps.

“Charlene,” I said, “I am just tired of letting the assholes have everything.”

I have seldom looked back from that moment, and I have belonged to a gym constantly since then in spite of not being the type. The recent regime changes at the Y, though, have made me wonder. My mother has been lifting weights since she got diagnosed with osteoporosis a few years ago, but she has stayed fit well into her seventies mainly by walking.

* * *

Another spin instructor one day before class was holding forth about how she doesn’t believe in therapy. “You can’t change the past,” she proclaimed to her captive audience. “You just need to forget whatever it is and move on.”

“Ah,” I said from the middle of the room, “but you can change the past.” I finally got her to admit that you can at least change the way you think about the past. But I could tell that she didn’t think that mattered.

I accept this kind of supposedly motivational positivity as par for the course in the world of health and exercise. Taking control of your life and letting go of the negative go hand-in-hand with movement, evidently. I have to say I prefer the positive style over than the one where the instructors yell at you and tell you that you’re failing. But sometimes the two seem to me to be two sides of a coin.

* * *

Before an indoor cycling class a few weeks ago, the instructor whirled through the small anteroom where several of us were changing our shoes. I hadn’t been to her class many times before, but I was trying to change my schedule around a bit. She tossed down her bag on the instructor’s dais and stomped back past us to the water fountain.

“I just can’t believe people,” she said, glancing toward one of the other women. She bent over the water fountain, filling her bottle. “You’d never believe this client I saw just now.” She explained with a sweep around the room that she’s a home health care worker. “We try to help them,” she said. “I tried to be nice.” She turned her head to the side. “But he was so un-American.”

I steeled myself. The other women murmured their sympathy and went back to tying their shoes. But the instructor bull-dozed on. “I mean, he’s… Well, he’s fat,” she said, screwing her nose up a bit. “And he’s diabetic and all that. I keep telling him that he has to eat better, and what does he say? He says it’s all because he lives in America!” She sputtered. “I just can’t tolerate that kind of anti-Americanism.”

I didn’t really know her well enough to get into it, so I sat horrified as she went on. “You know, I live in America, and I’m not fat! It’s all his own fault and he wants to blame the greatest country in the world.”

This exchange (or lack thereof) has haunted me since. That so many of the Y instructors use themselves as the measuring stick to judge other people haunts me. That this particular woman’s inability to sympathize with an immigrant who has left his native culture and perhaps the loving support of his family haunts me. That he lives in some crappy apartment with a stove that hardly works and so chooses to eat fast food haunts me. That she believes that the best way to help him is to blame him haunts me.

Well, a lot of stuff haunts me. I think that over the past months of my genuine emotion exploration, what has been most useful have been reminders about self-compassion and compassion for others. It’s even a tenet of positive psychology. It’s just a part that a lot of positivity enforcers forget.