When Trying to Fake Happiness Can Backfire on You

fake happiness

A popular piece of advice in psychology is to “fake it ’till you make it.” In other words, if we fake happiness (such as creating a “fake smile”) then eventually it actually becomes real and genuine happiness.

I believe this is true to some degree. I often write about the importance of acting in new ways to create new thoughts and feelings. For example, there is one popular study that participants who were tricked into faking a smile found a cartoon to be funnier than those who tricked to fake a frown.

There is also research on how faking certain body postures can improve our confidence and mood, such as through exercises known as power posing.

However, some research also shows the possible costs of fake happiness and the philosophy of “fake it ’till you make it.” For example:

  • According to a recent study in the Academy of Management Journal, it was discovered that bus drivers were more likely to experience negative emotions on days when they pretended to be in a good mood.
  • Another meta-analysis of over 3 decades of research found that faking positive feelings at work was associated with lower employee satisfaction and increased job burnout.
  • A third study published in Anxiety, Stress, and Coping found that volunteers at a call center who were told to “hide negative emotions” had greater increases in blood pressure and heart rate than those told to show their true feelings.
  • And another recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology has found that hiding the “real you” at work can hurt motivation and productivity.

As it turns out, the “emotional labor” it takes to pretend to be in a good mood can actually be very taxing on our physical and mental well-being, and thereby backfire on our overall happiness.

There are a couple of lessons that we take from here, especially when it comes to both businesses and employees.

One lesson for businesses is to give employees an opportunity to express themselves genuinely and openly. Of course, this doesn’t mean you want customer service yelling at people, but maybe giving employees a way to express their frustrations among each other could provide a valuable emotional release, without necessarily disrupting the “consumer experience.”

There should also be a drive in businesses to try to make work environments as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. Often times, research shows that the happier workers are, the better their work performance and productivity. Because of this, I believe it is only a matter of time until more businesses begin implementing more mental health and self improvement.

One lesson for employees is to not feel the need to plaster on a smile every time they walk into the office. It is okay to feel down from time to time, and we need not pretend that our jobs are perfect (because they rarely are).

This also fits with a common theme of this blog which is that we must give ourselves “permission to be negative” every now and then. Experiencing positive emotions 24/7 is an unrealistically high expectation that can often only lead to disappointment and frustration.

Another lesson for employees is to raise their standards. If a job isn’t at all satisfying to you, consider searching for something else that makes you genuinely happier. We sometimes underestimate our value and skills in the marketplace. We become complacent to one job, and we stop searching for other opportunities.

We often begin to accept the idea that a job is supposed to be something we hate, so we settle for something less than what we might really be capable of. Jobs can be difficult and tiresome, but that doesn’t mean they have to be the plague of our existence.

(I understand there are some limitations to the above, maybe based on your prior work experience, education, and other factors. I only recommend that you keep yourself open to alternatives. You may not have a whole lot of different jobs to choose from, but there is usually more than just one path.)

Of course, if your job creates genuine happiness than there is no need to “fake happiness” at all.

Overall, I want to remind you one last time that it’s completely natural to not be 100% in love with everything in your life. We shouldn’t feel like we have to fake happiness around others or put on the illusion that we are happy all the time. So don’t fool yourself into thinking that needs to be the case.

Often times, by acknowledging life’s imperfections, we can manage them better than if we try to bury ourselves in delusions and false ideals.

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