We have all heard—perhaps even sung—about putting on a happy face. The idea is that a smile makes us look happy, which will eventually make us feel happy. So many of us plaster on a big grin when we walk into work or sit down for an important meeting.
And that might be exactly the right thing to do. Or it might completely backfire.
A study by Kellogg marketing professor Aparna Labroo and Ping Dong, an assistant professor of marketing, shows that smiling makes some people feel good. For others, though, it triggers negative emotions and ends up making them feel worse. We talked with Labroo about her research.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KELLOGG INSIGHT: What are the pros and cons of smiling for people approaching a new setting or challenge?
LABROO: We often hear that you should fake it till you make it. And indeed that can serve a purpose, because if I signal that I'm having fun, I might attract other people and we might all bond better. No one wants to be with someone who's looking miserable.
But there's value in being authentic. For some people, we found that if you try too hard to enjoy something, it reminds you that you're not enjoying the situation. When you start feeling uncomfortable about trying to fit in, that can make you feel not good.
KELLOGG INSIGHT: You found that smiling is not universally an indication of happiness.
LABROO: Right, people either smile because they're feeling happy or they smile because they're trying to feel happy. We looked at the literature on primates and found that some animals actually have a grin-like expression when they’re getting aggressive.
In a cross-cultural context, in Japan, for example, people smile to cover up anger. A coauthor on our study is from China, and she said, “You know, we often smile when we are embarrassed.” I’m from India originally and we often smile to cover up our feelings.
Yes, there’s feedback from smiling. But if it’s a reminder to our cognitive system that I’m embarrassed or I’m angry or I’m unhappy, it’s going to actually make us feel worse.
KELLOGG INSIGHT: So who benefits from smiling and who can be hurt by it?
LABROO: It depends on a person’s motivation for smiling. In one study, we surveyed participants about why they think people smile. We found if someone believes people smile because they are already feeling happy, then smiling makes them feel happier and have more fun. But for the participants who believe people smile to try to become happy, smiling had a negative influence on their immediate and long-term happiness.
In another study, we showed people humorous pictures and told them to smile if they thought a particular picture was funny. Before looking at the pictures, we asked them their beliefs about why people tend to smile.
For participants who said they think people smile when they’re feeling good, smiling at a lot of funny pictures made them report feeling happy and having a general sense of well-being. However, the opposite was true for people who smiled at a lot of pictures but had said they thought people in general smile to try to improve how they feel. These people reported feeling less happy and having a lower sense of well-being after smiling at the pictures.
KELLOGG INSIGHT: You have conducted a lot of research on happiness, including research on how it impacts our motivation to take on difficult work or to give to charity. Aside from the fact that we all like to be happy, why is it an important emotion?
LABROO: The more satisfied people are with their lives, the lower their stress levels. They tend to have better outcomes on tasks. They tend to have better health. They tend to cooperate with other people better.
KELLOGG INSIGHT: Where did the idea for this particular research on smiling come from?
LABROO: I am interested in how feelings, and happiness in particular, can influence decisions and choices. A large amount of literature stated that smiling can make people feel happy, so I wanted to investigate. I’m uncomfortable when people state a universal truth, because most effects arise only under a set of circumstances.
So my coauthors and I hypothesized that any action, including smiling, is likely to be interpreted by our brains based on whatever associations are already activated in the mind. If the action is interpreted as a signal that I am not feeling good, then that action should make me feel worse. That is what we investigated and found.
In other research, I find happiness can lead to abstract thinking, and that happiness can increase pursuit of long-term goals by cueing people to opportunities for success. So this research fit with my broader interest in understanding happiness and decision-making.
KELLOGG INSIGHT: The research also shows that it’s possible to change people’s beliefs about smiling, at least temporarily.
LABROO: We told a group of participants that people smile in order to feel happy, and then presented these participants with a situation that prompted them to smile. We told another group that people smile because they are happy, and then prompted them to smile. The first group ended up saying that they are not as happy as the second.
KELLOGG INSIGHT: What is your advice to someone walking into a new setting—be it a networking event or new job—who wants to make a good impression? Should they put on a happy face?
LABROO: Yes, a smile is good. It’s social. No one wants to see a grouch. It’s always good to push yourself outside your comfort zone. But it becomes problematic when you try too hard, when looking happy becomes a very conscious and uncomfortable thing. If you’re trying to fake it, at some point you know.