Can we actually trick our brains into happiness?
By Kohava Mendelsohn
This past week was hell. I had a project due or midterm in every one of my courses. Sitting down in front of my last midterm of the week as the professor was handing out papers, I felt nerves bubble up from my stomach. I didn’t know if I’d studied enough, I hadn’t slept well that day, and I knew this professor was known for setting hard tests. I was scared.
So I paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and told myself, “You’ve got this. You’re smart, you studied. You can do this.” Then I picked up my pencil and began.
I was trying to act on advice I’ve been given over and over. “Think positively!” “Imagine the best outcome!” “Smile, and you’ll feel better.” “Just fake it ‘til you make it!” We’ve all heard variations of this advice before. But does it actually work? Or is this all just a myth? It seems too good to be true…
At first pass, positive psychology seems well-backed by science. Barbara L. Fredrickson, one of the most-cited psychology researchers ever, has found that positive emotions can increase feelings of purpose, social support, and even decrease symptoms of illness. Fredrickson found that when a group of people participated in an experiment training their minds to use positive thinking, it “increased their positive emotions and, in turn, their personal resources and well-being.”
Research has also found that smiling can actually make us feel better, even when we don’t expect it to. A 2012 article in Psychological Science found that participants who were smiling naturally and forced to smile both recovered from stress faster than people who weren’t smiling at all. The researchers also asked both sets of participants to report how they felt before and after stressful tasks. They found that smiling can benefit both your physical and psychological health.
However, answers are rarely as simple as we believe. In 2016, 17 research labs all tried to reproduce a study connecting smiling to people’s emotions…and failed. Another study published in 2019 found that service workers who have to force smiles all day have increased chances for unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessive alcohol consumption. So it seems like smiling isn’t always helpful.
I know that when I’m feeling helpless or angry, the last thing I want to hear is someone saying, “just cheer up, smile, and you’ll feel better.” It feels fake and like I’m being forced to smile so they feel better, not me. When I’m upset, I don’t always even want to feel better or want to hear solutions. Telling me to smile will just make me angrier. I’m not sure if smiling will make me feel better, but if I do try, I don’t think it will be because anyone else told me to.
I’m not alone in these feelings. In 2014, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper outlining how, when comforting someone who is upset, putting a positive spin on the situation can lead to both people feeling worse. The person being comforted can feel like their worries aren’t being listened to or validated and can rebuke the comforter, who can feel their kindness was only met with resistance. The study suggests that validating the distressed person’s feelings is a more useful way to make them feel better than telling them to cheer up or look on the bright side. It seems like positive psychology isn’t working when it’s coming from an outside source.
So what can science tell us about aiming for positivity and smiles? From what I can tell, the articles about positive thinking that show it works are on an individual level, where self-talk and self-motivation are key, but not when someone else is asking you to do something. I feel like taking a deep breath and telling myself that I was smart did calm me down and help me face my midterm in a better frame of mind. However, if someone else had told me to calm down, I might have panicked even more.
So are we dealing with a myth or a fact? Can smiling and staying positive can make you feel better? Science tells us that yes, it is possible, but we shouldn’t go around telling other people to smile or to be positive. Pushing positivity blindly onto others can become toxic. Emotions are valid even when they aren’t happy, and we need to be aware of that. Focus on what your emotions are telling you. Staying positive may be great if it helps, but let’s stop perpetuating the myth that forcing a smile is the solution to all our problems.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Always consult a doctor regarding mental health concerns.