Start Every Day with a Smile and Get It Over With–W.C. Fields
We have all heard the old adage that frowning takes more muscles than smiling. Sometimes it’s 2 times as many muscles, sometimes it’s as many as 5 times, but either way, it’s the annoying thing people say when you look less than happy and they are trying to get you to perk up and smile at them. This muscle logic is often used by well-meaning people who are saying, in effect, “Go take the easier road and smile…everyone will feel better, including you (despite the fact that you are not in a smiley mood).” Often people react to that admonition by slapping a smile, albeit fake, on their face to appease the other person. There, now, everyone feels better, right?
Smiles are one of the things that we as a society place great value upon. When people we know and even people we don’t know won’t smile back at us, it makes us very insecure and uncomfortable. Those damn smiley faces have even invaded the emails and texts we send and have become a synonym for “just kidding.” Fundamentally, a smile is the currency of welcome and acceptance among at least Americans and no doubt those of many other cultures.
There has been a litany of research focused on proving that forcing yourself to act happy (when you are not) actually brings on happiness and/or smiley-ness. This has formed the basis for a significant amount of counseling and guidance built around a mind-over-matter psychology; if you make yourself act happy, the true happiness will follow. So imagine my disappointment (insert frowny face here) when I read the NY Times article this week entitled, “The Claim: A Fake Smile Can be Bad for Your Health.”
This article reported on a University of Michigan study that found that forcing a smile (in other words putting on a fake smile to appease others) actually leads to negative consequences and even greater unhappiness than you may have started with in the first place. Here is an excerpt from the article:
In a study published this month in the Academy of Management Journal, scientists tracked a group of bus drivers for two weeks, focusing on them because their jobs require frequent, and generally courteous, interactions with many people. The scientists examined what happened when the drivers engaged in fake smiling, known as “surface acting,” and its opposite, “deep acting,” where they generated authentic smiles through positive thoughts, said an author of the study, Brent Scott, an assistant professor of management at Michigan State University.
After following the drivers closely, the researchers found that on days when the smiles were forced, the subjects’ moods deteriorated and they tended to withdraw from work. Trying to suppress negative thoughts, it turns out, may have made those thoughts even more persistent. But on days when the subjects tried to display smiles through deeper efforts — by actually cultivating pleasant thoughts and memories — their overall moods improved and their productivity increased.
Women were affected more than men. Dr. Scott suspected cultural norms might be at play: women are socialized to be more emotionally expressive, he said, so hiding emotions may create more strain.
Well that’s a downer, especially for us double-x chromosome bearers. Turns out that encouraging your cranky friends and acquaintances to smile in the face of their unhappiness may actually be an act of negative aggression. You could accidentally send them spiraling down to an even darker place than they had already planned to visit, increasing depression and contributing to higher healthcare costs to our nation.
I know, it sounds a bit melodramatic (who me?), but depression is linked to higher healthcare costs in a mountain of studies too big to climb. Here’s just one example of such research, which found that patients with depression had higher median per-patient annual non-mental health costs than patients without depression among patients with 11 different chronic diseases (e.g., congestive heart failure, diabetes, and the other usual suspects).
Perhaps we need to be a bit more tolerant of people who don’t smile at us in every situation. Is it fair to expect a bus driver who we don’t actually know to smile at us? How about the random person walking down the street minding their own business who may not feel compelled to return our smile? Do we have a right to push our close friends to smile when they are feeling down or should we, instead, sit down next to them and engage in helping them remember great times that would bring an authentic smile to their face? Whose happiness are we after anyway: our friend’s or our own, which takes a hit when they don’t smile back? I am guessing that, if people knew that forcing others to smile could contribute to worse health and greater healthcare costs, there would be a rapid reduction in the blithe “come on get happy” mentality we see in the world. Perhaps this explains why there is not a lot of smiling, even of the fake variety, on the floor of the U.S. Congress—they are just trying to get a jump on reducing healthcare inflation.
Oh, and while I’m out here bursting bubbles of the round yellow variety, take note of research done by University of Chicago Hospital’s David H. Song, MD, FACS, who found that it actually takes one more muscle to smile than to frown. In an actual study, Dr. Song reported that:
- a genuine smile takes two muscles to crinkle the eyes, two to pull up the lip corners and nose, two to elevate the mouth angle, and two to pull the mouth corners sideways. Total smile: 12.
- a frown needs two muscles to pull down the lips and wrinkles in the lower face, three to furrow the brow, one to purse the lips, one to depress the lower lip, and two to pull the mouth corners down. Total frown: 11.
So it may well be that the more compelling reason to smile when you are depressed is not to appease others, but because it is better exercise than frowning. Since exercise is clearly linked to lower healthcare costs, that might be just the antidote to the findings of the University of Michigan study. Teach people that fake smiling burns more calories than frowning due to more muscle use. That might just bring on the authentic happiness they were lacking and result in a true smile. And that makes everyone happy.