Even If Fake Smiling Can Boost My Mood, I Don’t Ever Want to Be Asked to Do It

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Ever heard that sage advice to "smile through the pain?" It offers the ethos of other similar platitudes like "put your big girl pants on" or "get back on the horse," but apparently, when it comes to—wait for it—grinning and bearing it, there's some science to support the trite saying.

A recent paper published in Psychological Bulletin suggests that smiling, even if you're faking it, will gift you a marginal, momentary mood boost. The meta-analysis of 138 studies on more than 11,000 people worldwide about facial expression and whether it influences emotions supports the notion that smiling makes people a smidge happier, while scowling and frowning makes them angrier and sadder, respectively. But, when perusing online reactions to this new finding, I saw an abundance of "Smiling is the Way to Happiness" headlines—which crystallized just one thought in my mind: Please don't make me smile.

I hate being told to smile. Anyone who's ever fielded a catcall on their way to work (AKA a woman who breathes air) probably also hates being told to smile. We should feel how we want to feel, and internalizing emotions to turn a frown upside down tends to manifest destructive external effects. Need proof? A recent and unrelated buzzy study suggests faking a perma-smile while working in the service industry lead to boozing hard later on.

Studies and their conclusions about positive micro-effects aside, I want to know if there's really ever a time when a fake smile is a good plan or like, nah. And according to Helene Brenner, PhD, licensed psychologist and author of I Know I’m in There Somewhere: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner Voice and Living a Life of Authenticity, the issue isn't black and white—but being constantly joker-faced can be isolating.

"The biggest problem with fake-smiling is that it keeps people distant. They create a false sense of closeness with lots of people, but may never feel close or trusting with anyone."—licensed psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD

"The biggest problem with fake-smiling is that it keeps people distant," Dr. Brenner says. "Politicians do it all the time, and so do people who are good at other kinds of 'politics,' like office politics. They can get people to like them, but nobody ever knows who they really are or what they really think. They create a false sense of closeness with lots of people, but may never feel close or trusting with anyone."

And it's not just other people's perception of you and how authentic you are (or aren't) that's at risk with a fake smiling habit. You might also lose a sense of self. "Other people smile almost all of the time because they've discovered that people—including possible romantic partners—are attracted to them when they smile, but eventually they begin to question whether anyone will like their true self," Dr. Brenner adds.

Still, there's one scenario when a faux grin may be helpful: When you want to make a good first impression. "The best time to make an effort to smile is when you're with unfamiliar people that you want to meet or get to know, because it makes it more likely they will smile at you," Dr. Brenner says. "And having people smile at you makes the world feel friendlier and safer, which is definitely a mood-booster."

That said, the worst thing you can do is fake a smile when you're feeling profoundly sad, as it'll only amplify your loneliness, she says. So when you're feeling low, there are two great ways to gas yourself up: 1. Acknowledge the present, and support yourself the way you might a grieving friend. 2. Look back to the past to conjure a happy memory that'll bring an authentic smile to your face. Then savor that feeling and smile—no faking necessary.

Need a little help? Learn to build a happy memory palace here. And if you're feeling seriously exhausted and overwhelmed by maintaining a happy facade, this is what you should know about smiling depression.

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