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Fake It Till You Make It: Does It Lead to Real Happiness?

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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.

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.

Mind Fake-Outs
On her blog that spawned the best-selling book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about the “act-the-way-I-want-to-feel principle,” in which she tries to overcome negative emotions with happier actions. “By acting as if you feel a certain way, you induce that emotion in yourself,” she writes. “When I’m feeling an unpleasant feeling, I counteract it by behaving the way I wish I felt—when I feel like yelling at my children, I make a joke; when I feel annoyed with a sales clerk, I start acting chatty.” Anyone who’s taken an Intro to Psychology class might call that avoidance, and that’s why some psychologists argue against positive-psychology theories. If you’re constantly trying to mask a bad mood with a good one, when will you deal with what’s causing the unhappiness in the first place?

Then again, as humans, we might fake our own happiness without even knowing it. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert gave a TED talk in 2004 about the “psychological immune system”—our brains’ noncognitive effort to make us feel better about an outcome that isn’t desired, like saying, “I didn’t really want that position” if you fail to get a promotion. “Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for,” Gilbert explains. “You find a way to be happy with what happened.”

He uses a free-choice paradigm as an example: when people are asked to rank six Monet prints aesthetically and are then told they can keep the one they liked only somewhat, suddenly that’s the one they like best. The same held true when Gilbert and his colleagues performed the test on anterograde amnesiacs, who didn’t even remember meeting the researchers or ranking any prints thirty minutes afterward. Even then, the amnesiacs changed their print preferences—without even recalling that they could keep any of them!

Don’t Believe Every Cliché
Clearly, it’s possible to make yourself a little happier about a bad situation if you don’t realize that that’s what you’re doing. And maybe that’s the key to “tricking” yourself into happiness—it has to be subconscious on some level. If you force yourself to fake a smile (which produces only minimal results) or act the opposite way that you want to (which could lead to pushing down bad feelings, instead of working through them), you could end up feeling even worse. A 2006 study out of the University of Frankfurt am Main found that employees forced to act friendly and polite during customer complaint phone calls increased their risk of cardiovascular problems and depression in the process. When people have to “fake” happiness in the long run, it stresses out their bodies and minds.

Can you fake it till you make it? It depends on what your definition of “make it” is, but all in all, it doesn’t seem like a lasting solution for true happiness if you’re especially unhappy. That isn’t to argue against working toward a more positive outlook and focusing on things that do make you happy, rather than dwelling solely on the negative, though. As a matter of fact, that’s probably one of the most beneficial things we can do for our mental and physical health. But such a shift can’t be forced; otherwise, it likely won’t work. It happens either naturally (as with Gilbert’s “synthetic happiness” theory) or as a result of accepting situations for what they are and moving on from there. There’s nothing wrong with attempting a smile to ward off a frown, but don’t count on feeling 100 percent better with that alone. It seems that faking anything, happiness or otherwise, will get you only so far.

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