Smiling: Fake it till you make it, not till you hate it

Patrick* was a relentlessly chipper chap. His cheerfulness was infectious, he was great to be around. He was going through a tortuous, spiteful divorce. Despite the lack of contact with his kids, the financial shock and constant hostile interactions, Patrick always greeted with a smile and a joke. Patrick was depressed, but no one around him knew – his sadness locked behind a happy smile.

Sometimes psychological research seems to contradict itself. Take two recent studies. One, led by the University of Tennessee, reviewed 138 other studies (a meta-analysis) and concluded that putting on a smile makes you feel happy. The other, from the Pennsylvania State University, assessed nurses and customer service staff and concluded that smearing on a smile at work leads you to uncontrolled drinking afterwards. What’s going on?

Many, many of my new clients believe that psychology works by training themselves to feel positive. Often, they have tried to make themselves think in a happier way, to pretend to be happier than they are. Of course, because they are coming to see a psychologist, these efforts have been unsuccessful. And now, they have two problems, firstly they are not happy, secondly, they feel that they are a “failure”. They were unable to enforce happiness and they feel at fault for their own misery.

General Practitioner, Dr Russ Harris, has been one of the strongest opponents of the “cult of happiness”. Russ comes from the therapeutic tradition of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). According to the ACT approach, chasing after happiness and running away from pain is the problem, not the solution. Pain is a normal part of life and trying to deny this fact creates suffering.

Patrick realised that grasping on to happiness was not serving him well. Friends and family weren’t offering support. On a deeper level, he realised that his endlessly cheerfulness had contributed to his marriage collapse. His wife had for years asked him to take things seriously. There was a deep sadness in Patrick which was expressed after the mask came off.

So, if trying to force yourself to be happy doesn’t work, why did the study of studies show that smiling makes you happy? Choosing to put on a smile might be a good short-term strategy to cope with the pain of life. Maybe, if we approach certain difficulties with a calm, accepting face, we can encourage well-being. Of course, over time this could become tiring. This emotional labour could make us more susceptible to drinking to cope. We could become estranged from our own emotional experience. We might give close people the wrong idea of how we are going. We might experience a “rebound emotion”.

Patrick learnt to be more comfortable expressing his negative emotions. Did this work make Patrick a more sombre person? No, Patrick was still a glass half full kinda guy. After he learnt that it was ok to be sad sometimes, he became more flexible and authentic. More relatable to others. And these things made for more durable happiness rather than just slapping on a smile.

* names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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