A Therapist Explains The Downsides Of Always Faking A Positive Attitude
There is a dark side to manufactured happiness. Here's what it is.
By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | May 5, 2023
We all experience challenges and struggles at various points in our lives that leave us feeling exhausted, stressed, and anxious. During such times, social norms encourage us to mask our true emotions behind the veil of positivity. We may receive tidbits of advice like:
- "You may not feel it now but you have to fake it until you make it."
- "This is all in your mind. Just smile and you will feel better."
- "Only focus on feeling better and you'll see your problems disappear."
While positivity can be a helpful tool for overcoming certain challenges and setbacks, constantly feigning happiness can take a serious toll on our mental health and can prevent us from addressing the root causes of our problems.
Here are three research-backed reasons why it's sometimes not okay to 'just keep smiling.'
#1. It bottles up real emotions
It is impossible to expect yourself to be 100% genuine and authentic about what you are feeling on the inside. Time, place, and situation often dictate the appropriateness of our expressions – guiding us, in certain cases, to protect someone else's feelings or respect others' space.
Holding back and masking your true emotions with a smile for the greater good is a good skill to have at your disposal. However, always smiling to avoid dealing with your own discomfort can be a sign of a deeper, toxic pattern.
One study published in the Academy of Management Journal discovered that workers who tried to fake their emotions and go on with their day reported worsened emotional states over time.
Smiling to keep up a facade is self-deceiving and only delays the inevitable. While sometimes we need to smile our way through a tough spot, constantly divorcing yourself from your true feelings does more psychological harm than good.
#2. It leads to unrealistic beliefs
Conventional wisdom suggests the more people smile, the more positive they feel, and that positive feelings enhance well-being.
Challenging this popular belief, an article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that frequent smiling may, in fact, backfire. It is not the act of smiling itself that increases happiness or well-being, but the interpretation of the smile as a reflection of happiness that holds more weight.
To put simply, the belief "I am happy because I smile" can be counterproductive as opposed to "I smile because I am happy."
Other unhelpful beliefs that can lead to unrealistic expectations and jeopardize well-being are:
- "I am invincible, nothing hurts me" versus "I am strong enough to overcome this obstacle."
- "My life is just perfect" versus "I am happy where I currently am and I will work toward making a better life for myself."
- "I am the most beautiful among my friends" versus "I love the way I look and enjoy making an effort on my appearance."
Affirmations that don't align with one's internal values can lead to added resistance, creating complacency and reduced accountability for one's own happiness.
#3. It gives an untrue impression
In the quest to convince yourself of your happiness, you also inevitably give the same impression to friends and loved ones, which prompts them to treat you in a particular manner.
While a positive self-representation can definitely encourage a more positive outlook, an honest self-representation returns on one's need for social support. Studying the online behavior of individuals on Facebook, researchers found that genuine self-disclosure plays an important role in signaling one's need for social support.
"While hiding behind a smiling Facebook mask, one may still feel happy," states the lead author of the study, psychologist Junghyun Kim. "Such happiness, however, may not be rooted in meaningful social support provided by Facebook friends."
Continuously feigning happiness and positivity can lead to a misrepresentation of your true emotional state. This can cause emotional confusion, and it can influence others to interact with you in unhelpful ways. Most importantly, it can impede you from getting the mental health help and support you need.