Faking Happiness: Is It Worth It?

Turn that frown upside down!–or not. According to a new study, faking a smile to hide your unhappiness may actually make you more upset. Here’s the New York Times: 

In a study published this month in the Academy of Management Journal, scientists tracked a group of bus drivers for two weeks, focusing on them because their jobs require frequent, and generally courteous, interactions with many people….

After following the drivers closely, the researchers found that on days when the smiles were forced, the subjects’ moods deteriorated and they tended to withdraw from work. Trying to suppress negative thoughts, it turns out, may have made those thoughts even more persistent.

But on days when the subjects tried to display smiles through deeper efforts — by actually cultivating pleasant thoughts and memories — their overall moods improved and their productivity increased.

The New York Times article says the bottom line is that the “Research suggests that an inauthentic smile to hide unhappiness can further worsen your mood.” 

Maybe, but I don’t think that’s an argument against faking happiness. Consider the people you interact with when you’re in a bad mood: do you really want them to know that you’re not happy? Also think about how your perceived unhappiness affects the happiness of those other people around you. Do you want your bad mood to make them unhappy too? The way I see it, in our mundane, daily encounters with people, the socially appropriate move is to fake happiness. Doing otherwise is just selfish and self-absorbed. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but as a general principle, I say fake the smile. 

What do you think? 

  1. dittoheadadt

    I think the problem with that study is that the forced smiles were forced upon the people by someone else.  The studies that say you should act happy and you’ll be happy (e.g. force yourself to smile) rely on you being the impetus for forcing a smile, not some outside 3rd party. 

    “Research suggests that an inauthentic smile to hide unhappiness can further worsen your mood.”

    Sure, when someone else tells you to do it.  But that’s the case when someone else tells you to do anything that you don’t want to do (go to church, take out the trash, be nice to your sister, etc.).

    Choose to be happy and you’ll be happy.  Choose to act happy and you’ll be happy (or happier, anyway).  Choose to allow someone else to tell you what to do, and you’ll be miserable.

  2. BlueAnt

    “Politeness is the grease that allows the wheels of society to grind along without deafening us all.”

    Allow me to play the grumpy curmudgeon today:  I claim that politeness is necessary during public interactions in society.  Happiness is merely optional.

    So if your culture requires a quick smile or a friendly demeanor to be considered polite (not all cultures do), well, buck up and bear it for the sake of civilization.

    Everyone finds their own source of happiness–God, family, self-actualization, whatever–even if the source changes over time.  The luckiest of us learn to focus on these aspects of our life every day, instead of focusing on the daily grind for our entire lives.  But until you do, the rest of us expect a perfunctory smile and some manners; this is not an unreasonable request in return for the benefits society gives you.

  3. Sheila S.

    I am a firm believer in the “Fake it till you make it” philosophy.

    Also, that when you are going through tough times or having a bad day, it’s extremely impolite to inflict your bad mood on the innocent people with whom you interact.  You don’t have to radiate joy and good cheer, but for pity’s sake, at least recognize their lack of involvement in your current mood and make an attempt to be somewhat cheerful and courteous for their sakes.

    Some people seem to instinctively understand that situational happiness is just that – situational, and that events and circumstances ebb and flow around us.  Others, for whatever reason, seem incapable of doing this and just have a more uphill battle in handling difficult times.

  4. Ajax von Kaiserpenguin
    Consider the people you interact with when you’re in a bad mood . . .  

    Wait; I’m supposed to care about other people?

  5. Aaron Miller
    dittoheadadt: I think the problem with that study is that the forced smiles were forced upon the people by someone else. 

    Sheila S.:

    Also, that when you are going through tough times or having a bad day, it’s extremely impolite to inflict your bad mood on the innocent people with whom you interact.  You don’t have to radiate joy and good cheer, but for pity’s sake, at least recognize their lack of involvement in your current mood and make an attempt to be somewhat cheerful and courteous for their sakes.

    Agreed.

    It’s irresponsible to not even try to keep from inflicting one’s unhappiness on others. But it’s better to be unhappy around others than to withdraw from social situations entirely. Self-indulgence and lack of stimulation often make unhappiness worse.

    I took an entire college course on happiness in which we looked at it through both philosophy and psychology. One thing psychologists have figured out is that individuals tend to have a fixed happiness range by adulthood. Each person has habits of thinking and a unique brain chemistry which governs their emotional responses, and it’s rare for either to change significantly.

  6. KarlUB

    To paraphrase C.S. Lewis:

    It is a spiritual axiom that we become that which we pretend to be.

  7. Chris Deleon

    I’m involved in a volunteer Christian counseling and support service at our church, and they emphasize that bottling up your emotions is harmful, as most psychiatrists would also tell you.  You need to find a healthy outlet for emotions, and you cannot deny that you have them or force them down forever.

    However, as you deal with the emotions you learn to first expose them, then manage them, and then later to redirect your thoughts if necessary to change your emotions.

    I’m a subscriber to the idea (well validated by science) that your brain is like a network of pathways, or like a river with multiple courses.  At almost any point, if you are aware enough, you can choose which pathway your thoughts take, or in which course the river flows.  But over time, ruts form, and river courses deepen, and it becomes harder to break out of certain thought patterns.

    Nevertheless, with enough meta-awareness of one’s own cognitive processes, and some good willpower, and practice, one can learn to re-train one’s mind for many purposes, including happiness.  To start with, focus on what’s going right rather than what’s going wrong.

  8. anon_academic
    dittoheadadt: Sure, when someone else tells you to do it.  But that’s the case when someone else tells you to do anything that you don’t want to do (go to church, take out the trash, be nice to your sister, etc.).

    Choose to allow someone else to tell you what to do, and you’ll be miserable. · Feb 22 at 7:55am

    You’re misinterpreting this, they are not giving general self help advice but specifically talking about a workplace context. I haven’t read the study yet, but from the summary I can tell that the authors are working with Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “emotion work” in which projecting an emotional affect is an integral part of a worker’s job. This is a really common issue in the service sector and it’s a little trite to say that one is unhappy about it because somebody is telling you to do it — this is what these people do for a living. For them to choose to do what someone else tells them to do is for them to choose to be employed.

    Also, FWIW, AMJ is an excellent journal.

  9. Good Berean

    Happiness, defined biblically, is becoming that which you were created to be; to fulfill the destiny prepared for you by your creator (that which you were predestined to become). Thus happiness is one of the inalienable rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Happiness as a right must be protected by government because it is in the Providence of God.

    You can’t fake this kind of happiness. It is this happiness we should pursue and no other!

  10. Good Berean
    BlueAnt

    Good Berean: Thus happiness is one of the inalienable rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Happiness as a right must be protected by government because it is in the Providence of God.

    Whoa there, you slipped an important point.  The right mentioned in the Declaration is “the pursuit of happiness”, and it covers things from property rights to freedom of movement.  Not happiness itself, but actions and objects which let us chase happiness on our own.

    · Feb 22 at 11:46am

    You are correct, it is the pursuit of happiness that is protected. Biblical happiness is not a given, it is a promise which can only be obtained through the combination of faith and works.

    Rights are not truely a biblical concept. As a covenental document, the Bible speaks more in terms of mutual obligations and liberties rather than rights and duties, although the terms are almost synonymous in modern thinking. The main point is that the pursuit of happiness is both a liberty and an obligation because it is both the duty and the pleasure of man to fulfill his God ordained calling and destiny. It is thus both inalienable and protected by civil government.

  11. anon_academic
    dittoheadadt

    No, “this” refers to being forced to smile.  What these people “do for a living” is not “smiling” but is bus driving. I’m not saying they’re unhappy because someone is telling them to drive a bus. They choose to drive a bus every time they show up for work. I’m saying they’re (more) unhappy because someone is telling them to smile. That’s not what they signed up for. · Feb 22 at 11:35am

    The fact is that there are plenty of jobs where smiling is part of your job description, including most anything that involves contact with customers. This can feel alienating, which is both part of the point of the study and the source of the humor with the Jennifer Anniston character in Office Space.

  12. Chris Deleon

    If you’re in a service job, I can definitely see that forcing a smile could make you feel even worse if you’re not feeling good.  It makes you feel artificial, like you’re wearing a mask.

    If employers want to help their employees to smile with more authenticity, perhaps they should offer them courses on dealing with emotions and gaining happiness.  Yes, I know a lot of you might knock that as touchy-feely, but it may just be in the employer’s best interest.  If their employees are truly feeling happy, business is probably going to do better. :-)

    By the way, smiles do make a huge difference in many service jobs.  Not all McDonald’s employees smile, but most do.  And after giving it thought, I realized that is a big reason why I prefer to go there (on the rare occasions I eat fast food) than to other fast-food joints where people look surly, like they’re just putting in the time.

  13. dittoheadadt
    anon_academic

    dittoheadadt

    No, “this” refers to being forced to smile.What these people “do for a living” is not “smiling” but is bus driving. I’m not saying they’re unhappy because someone is telling them to drive a bus. They choose to drive a bus every time they show up for work. I’m saying they’re (more) unhappy because someone is telling them to smile. That’s not what they signed up for. · Feb 22 at 11:35am

    The fact is that there are plenty of jobs where smiling is part of your job description, including most anything that involves contact with customers.

    That’s all well and good, but “bus driver” isn’t one where smiling was part of the job description. Forcing people (bus drivers) to smile against their will is different from “forcing” people to smile by making it part of their job description upfront, which job they can then choose not to take. The bus drivers in question were already (unsmiling) bus drivers when suddenly the “job description” changed unilaterally. That alone can make people more unhappy than they otherwise would be. It’s certainly not trite, or inaccurate, to point that out.

  14. anon_academic
    dittoheadadt

    That’s all well and good, but “bus driver” isn’t one where smiling was part of the job description. … The bus drivers in question were already (unsmiling) bus drivers when suddenly the “job description” changed unilaterally. That alone can make people more unhappy than they otherwise would be. It’s certainly not trite, or inaccurate, to point that out. 

    Fair enough. While there are exchanges where emotion work is pretty closely tied to the core duties, I for one am happy to have a merely civil bus driver and I agree that expecting him or her to go from civil to chipper can be overdoing it or even creepy.

  15. dittoheadadt
    anon_academic

    dittoheadadt: Sure, when someone else tells you to do it.  But that’s the case when someone else tells you to do anything that you don’t want to do (go to church, take out the trash, be nice to your sister, etc.).

    Choose to allow someone else to tell you what to do, and you’ll be miserable. · Feb 22 at 7:55am

    You’re misinterpreting this, they are not giving general self help advice but specifically talking about a workplace context. This is a really common issue in the service sector and it’s a little trite to say that one is unhappy about it because somebody is telling you to do it — this is what these people do for a living.

    No, “this” refers to being forced to smile.  What these people “do for a living” is not “smiling” but is bus driving. I’m not saying they’re unhappy because someone is telling them to drive a bus. They choose to drive a bus every time they show up for work. I’m saying they’re (more) unhappy because someone is telling them to smile. That’s not what they signed up for.

  16. BlueAnt
    Good Berean: Thus happiness is one of the inalienable rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Happiness as a right must be protected by government because it is in the Providence of God.

    Whoa there, you slipped an important point.  The right mentioned in the Declaration is “the pursuit of happiness”, and it covers things from property rights to freedom of movement.  Not happiness itself, but actions and objects which let us chase happiness on our own.

    I’ve posted this Heinlein quote before, but it seems to keep being relevant when discussing the modern conception of rights:

    “The third ‘right’?—the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives—but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can ensure that I will catch it.”