We’ve all heard it: the endless advice to “fake it till you make it” or “put on a happy face.” Frankly, it seems a little too Pollyanna-ish on the best of days, and when I’m in a bad mood or feeling justifiably blue, it can be downright offensive.
Psychologists far and wide, however, will tell you that such seeming platitudes are borne out by the research. Pretending a certain attitude or emotion actually ups your experience of that emotion, be it positive or negative. According to Psychology Today, a variety experiments show that people who present themselves as having positive traits experience a boost in their self-esteem, and vice versa.
Put simply, this means that to feel happier we should act happier. Simple enough, right?
Well, yes. Until you take into account that many people are averse to showing happiness. Think about it. How often do you have the following exchange:
You: How’s it going?
Friend: SO, SO well! Everything is amazing. Thank you for asking!
And how often do you have this one:
You: How’s it going?
Friend: All right, I guess. I’m tired all the time and getting drilled at work. Plus my mother-in-law is coming into town in a few days. Goooood tiiiiimes.
On a purely anecdotal level, you don’t have to look far to find evidence of the fact that a lot of people break out the bad news before the good. This isn’t unique to Americans, according to an article published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, entitled, “Aversion to Happiness Across Cultures: A Review of Where and Why People are Averse to Happiness.” In it, researchers Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers cast a wide net to see where and in what ways people try to avoid showing happiness.
According to Science Daily, they found that happiness aversion is more strongly apparent in non-Western cultures. Some cultures believe showing outward happiness is socially inappropriate, while others believe that displays of contentment may bring retribution from peers or deities. In Western culture, happy people are often labeled boring or lacking in depth.
If you’re reading this post, then most likely you aren’t living in fear of an “evil eye” catching you in the act of expressing joy. You may, however, be acting on more prosaic motivations: we often relate to others through kvetching, for instance, and the desire to avoid “rubbing it in” is fairly universal in our culture.
Is this a problem? Maybe.
Since happy people are known to exhibit better health, career and relationship outcomes throughout their lives, happiness aversion could have real repercussions: by tamping down happiness, you could actually decrease the feeling itself as well as the whole host of benefits it brings.
So whether your definition of success hinges on good relationships, career boosts or simply well-being, denying happiness probably won’t benefit you. I, for one, am going to start digging for the positive rather than the negative.
It can only help.