How Smiling Can Backfire

Posted on September 18, 2014

This idea - that actions affect feelings - runs counter to how we generally think about our emotions. Ask average folks how emotions work - about the causal relationship between feelings and behavior - and they'll say we smile because we're happy, we run because we're afraid. But work by such psychologists as Fritz Strack, Antonio Damasio, Joe LeDoux shows the truth is often the reverse. What we feel is actually the product, not the cause, of what we do. It's called "somatic feedback." Only after we act do we deduce, by seeing what we just did, how we feel.

This bodes well, at first blush, for anyone trying to change their emotions for the better. All you'd need to do is act like the kind of person you want to be, and that's who you'll become. (Call it the Bobby McFerrin philosophy: "Aren't happy? Don't worry. Just smile!")

But new research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Aparna Labroo, Anirban Mukhopadhyay, and Ping Dong suggests there may be limits to our ability to proactively manage our own well-being. The team ran a series of studies examining whether more smiling led to more happiness. One asked people how much smiling they had done that day, and how happy they currently felt. Other studies manipulated the amount of smiling people actually did, either by showing them a series of funny pictures or by replicating a version of the pencil-holding experiment. As expected, across these experiments, the researchers found that the more people smiled, the happier they reported being.

But only some people. Surprisingly, for a section of the population, smiling actually reduced well-being.

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Source material from Scientific American


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