Discover more from Heigh Ho — Work and Working Life
Faking a Smile Can Lift Your Mood… Or Burn You Out
Here's what happens when you're instructed to look happy
I stood at my seat vibing to the jam, when a bushy-bearded beer-toting stranger came staggering up the aisle steps, looked at me — mind you, it was noisy and dimly lit like any arena concert — and, as he passed, bellowed, “Smile! You’re at a show!”
If I wasn’t enjoying the music so much, his command would’ve ruined my night. What was wrong with me, I wondered, that led a stranger to single me out among thousands of fans in the hazy darkness and criticize my demeanor?
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People are always telling me to smile.
Of course, women encounter this constantly — more frequently than I do, and I’ve no doubt the men trying to assert ownership over women’s facial expressions are driven by darker intentions.
Smile. You’re at Work.
Why put a smile on your face, if it’s not already there?
The consequences of extrinsically motivated smiling, especially in the workplace, are rendered almost indiscernible by contradictory science and mixed messaging about authenticity.
Simplistic solutions to the mental ill-health crisis and a penchant for toxic positivity have led managers, thought leaders, and mental health vendors to promote the facial feedback hypothesis — though not by name, of course — which suggests that your emotional experience is influenced by your facial expression. Making a conscious effort to smile, for example, will make you happier.
The theory goes back at least as far as Darwin,1 but was popularized by Fritz Strack in 1988. Strack and team compared study subjects who clenched their teeth onto a pen (activating smile muscles) to those holding the pen between puckered lips (a supposed frown) while viewing Far Side comics. Those with induced smiles, Strack observed, were more amused by the comics compared to frowners.2
The study has been repeated several times, with mixed results.
Frown Lines, Forehead Lines, and New Lines of Research
To be fair, findings since Strack’s landmark study increasingly support elements of the facial feedback hypothesis.
(Use of botox to reduce or prevent signs of aging — especially frown lines and laughter lines — have created new opportunities for study and lend credence to the hypothesis, nicely covered by the New York Times in “Can Botox and Cosmetic Surgery Chill Our Relationships With Others?” If you can’t access the article due to a paywall, let me know in the Comments. I’ll work some magic for you.)
One of the most significant analyses3 reviewed nearly 130 facial feedback studies and concluded smiling can have a mild affect on mood but the effects are heterogenous — that is, your mileage may vary. The study author concluded:
Given that these effects tend to be small, it seems unlikely that facial feedback has a substantial impact on people’s emotional reactions.
A recent follow-up conducted by 49 experts from 19 countries, with "adversarial" views on facial feedback, confirmed4 that smiling can boost happiness, and addressed the potential for interventions — like advising people to smile in front of a mirror — to improve wellbeing and reduce depression:
Given that the similar-sized effect of positive images on happiness has not emerged as a serious well-being intervention, many (but not all) authors of this paper find it unlikely that facial feedback interventions will either.
If inconclusive research doesn’t make you think twice, consider the evidence on emotional labor, which turns smile science upside-down…
Phony Smiling Undermines Emotional Wellbeing, Productivity, Workplace Humanization, and Authenticity
Emotional labor was conceptualized by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart5 (available in the secret Heigh Ho bookstore). She defines it as “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display [that is] sold for a wage.”
As described in a well-researched blog post by Annie Murphy Paul, now senior writer for the popular Hidden Brain podcast:
Surface acting is when front line service employees, the ones who interact directly with customers, have to appear cheerful and happy even when they’re not feeling it. This kind of faking is hard work — sociologists call it “emotional labor” — and research shows that it’s often experienced as stressful. It’s psychologically and even physically draining; it can lead to lowered motivation and engagement with work, and ultimately to job burnout.
Having to act in a way that’s at odds with how one really feels — eight hours a day, five days a week (or longer) — violates the human need for a sense of authenticity.
In her book, Hochschild offers an illustrative anecdote from her research:
A young businessman said to a flight attendant, “Why aren’t you smiling?” She put her tray back on the food cart, looked him in the eye, and said, “I’ll tell you what. You smile first, then I’ll smile.” The businessman smiled at her. “Good,” she replied. “Now freeze, and hold that for 15 hours.” Then she walked away.
Decades of research have backed Hochschild’s theory of emotional labor. One study of more than 1500 service workers, for example, found “surface acting was robustly related to heavy drinking, even after controlling for demographics, job demands, and negative affectivity.”6
The Psychophysiological, the Sociological, and the Logical
What are we to make of advice to put on that grin and start right in — as Snow White sings in Whistle While You Work — when the psychophysiological research reveals emotional benefits… but sociological research exposes occupational hazards?
As customers, most of us prefer to see a smile from service workers. But managers should heed a point Annie Murphy Paul uncovers in her blog: Quality service supersedes smiliness:
Customers can tell when employees are faking it. Phony smiles are different from real smiles; they actually engage different nerves and muscles in the face, and observers can readily discriminate between the two. In any case, studies conclude, a big grin doesn’t make up for poor service.
Indeed, smile-ologists distinguish between different types of smiles, like those that are spontaneous, volitional, and social.7 Context makes a difference, too. If you're feeling down, mindfully smiling while walking in the woods is likely to yield a different outcome compared to the same smile when facing a mob of angry customers while working alone at a counter.
Until it’s sorted out, logical advice is:
Include a sincere smile as a minor factor when hiring service workers, rather than trying to change straight-faced hires.
Don’t tell people that forcing a smile will make them happier — it probably just makes you happier.
If you must align yourself with organizational trends, favor psychological safety and authenticity over miles of smiles.
Don’t stigmatize authenticity with “always smile” signage and communication campaigns.
And, finally, if you’re walking past me or anyone else and the absence of a smile on our face makes you squirm, please keep it to yourself and squirm on your merry way. 😃
Darwin, C., & Prodger, P. (1998). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. Oxford University Press, USA.
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 768.
Coles, N. A., Larsen, J. T., & Lench, H. C. (2019). A meta-analysis of the facial feedback literature: Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable. Psychological bulletin, 145(6), 610.
Coles, N. A., March, D. S., Marmolejo-Ramos, F., Larsen, J. T., Arinze, N. C., Ndukaihe, I. L., ... & Liuzza, M. T. (2022). A multi-lab test of the facial feedback hypothesis by the many smiles collaboration. Nature human behaviour, 1-12.
Hochschild, A. R. (2019). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. University of California press.
Grandey, A. A., Frone, M. R., Melloy, R. C., & Sayre, G. M. (2019). When are fakers also drinkers? A self-control view of emotional labor and alcohol consumption among US service workers. Journal of occupational health psychology, 24(4), 482.
Fiordalis, D. (2021). Buddhas and Body Language: The Literary Trope of the Buddha's Smile.