Should you ever just pretend to be happy when you're not? All this talk about getting our ratio of positive to negative emotions up prompted that question—and the answer is more complex than you might think.
Feigning happiness doesn't count as happiness, of course; it won't bring all the positive benefits that real happiness will. But when you paste on a smile there IS something at work that is pretty amazing: facial expressions themselves can actually make us feel. If you wrinkle your nose and narrow your eyes as you would if you were really angry, your body will release some adrenaline and your heart rate may speed up as if you were actually angry.
The same thing is true for other emotions. This means that sometimes we should just smile, even if we don't feel like it. As horribly forced as that sounds, there is solid science to back up the notion that this will, in fact, make us feel happier. Facial expression alone, without first feeling the corresponding emotion, is enough to create discernible changes in your autonomic nervous system. Force a smile—lift up those pretty lips, as my grandmother used to say—and crinkle your eyes, and your body will release all kinds of feel-good brain chemicals into your system. You can even just hold a pencil between your teeth—thereby activating your smile muscles—and you will likely find that your heart rate goes down and you start to feel calmer, happier. (The study shows that you'll also find things funnier for a while.) I've found the pencil clenching trick works, but it makes me drool.
I'm not advocating that we force ourselves or our children to smile when we're in the thick of bad feelings: negative feelings are a wonderful learning opportunity. When kids are feeling crummy, we need to emotion-coach them (I'll blog about this soon) so that they learn to deal with their negative emotions.
Hiding our negative feelings doesn't work, anyway. Research shows that we aren't very good at hiding how we are feeling because we exhibit micro-expressions that our brain registers and understands even if we aren't conscious of it. Trying to suppress negative emotions when we are talking with someone about something upsetting—like when we don't want to trouble someone else with our own distress—actually increases stress levels of both people MORE than if our distress was shared. It also inhibits the connection between people.
But if you've dealt with your negative emotions and are ready to feel better, by all means paste on that smile. (Just don't do it in the presence of others, whom you won't fool and will surely think you a freak.) If you can do it for long enough to stir up some real positive feelings, you will have gotten yourself to a better place: smiling boosts our immune system, reduces our stress, lowers our blood pressure, and makes people like us more. So the next time you feel crabby, go with that old-fashioned advice—put on a happy face.
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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