Can You Fake Yourself Happy?
Vicki Santillano | DivineCaroline
January 10, 2011
Today is a particularly frustrating day for you; in fact, you might even categorize it as a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. (Okay, maybe you’re having a great day, but for the sake of the story, just go with me.) In this situation, you have one of two choices: wallow in misery and let your grumpy mood fester, or put on a happy face and try to push those gray skies and thoughts far from your mind.
The latter method sounds a little too good to be true, but that’s what the positive-psychology movement suggests—not that we can trick ourselves into feeling a different way, per se, but that we can successfully redirect our focus toward positivity. Even the simple act of smiling when you’re sad supposedly makes a difference.
That sure is an enticing prospect, but is it really possible? Can we really “fake it till we make it” when it comes to actual happiness?
The Science of Happiness
Referring to happiness in relation to science feels like comparing apples to oranges, since one concept posits itself as objective, while the other is wholly subjective. Happiness varies on an individual basis, not only by level but also by how each person defines it. One person’s bliss could be another’s mild glow. Scientists can work based only on how people report feeling, which makes scientifically studying happiness somewhat limited—but not impossible. In fact, there’s been a great deal of groundbreaking research that offers insight into the matter.
For instance, did you know that the way we experience happiness, and to what degree, are at least somewhat determined by genetics? According to some research, genetics are around 50 percent responsible for how happy we are, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that 40 percent is determined by our own actions. (Ten percent is based on outside factors, like one’s salary or annoying people on the bus.) So even if 50 percent of our inclination is toward pessimism, maybe we could devote ourselves to more optimistic thoughts and actions and possibly tip the scales in happiness’s favor a little more. But then there’s the question of how much of a difference such thoughts and actions really make.
Grin and Bear It
If you google “faking happiness” or “positive thinking,” chances are, you’ll stumble across many articles and self-help blogs that recommend turning frowns upside down as a surefire mood boost. This notion is based on a famous study German researchers performed in 1988. They asked volunteers to hold a pencil with either their teeth or their lips, thus mimicking either a smile or a frown. Then they watched cartoons and rated them on a humor scale. Those who used their teeth found the cartoons funnier than those who used their lips, leading to a conclusion that even a fake smile—one that uses the same muscles but doesn’t come from a genuine source of happiness—can put someone in a better mood.
A 2002 study published in the journal Emotion attempted to reach a similar conclusion, this time asking participants to watch videos with both positive and negative images. As it turns out, the teeth users responded more positively only when the images were fun or pleasant; when they were unhappy images, the way the pencil was held made no difference.
Darwin believed that there was a link between facial expressions and resulting emotions, and evidence shows that making a grimace or smiling can affect how one feels. One experiment actually showed that getting a Botox-like injection might hinder someone’s ability to get angry because it limits facial movement. But that doesn’t mean that faking a smile leads to happiness automatically—it might make you feel a little better temporarily (using smile muscles also triggers a small burst of dopamine release in the brain), but whether it’ll chase the blues away completely or permanently is another issue.