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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.