In the last decade, there has been a major shift in how psychologists look at emotions. With the birth of ‘positive psychology’, the focus has moved from negative feelings and how those feature within the context of mental illness, to the mechanisms that cause and sustain happiness.
The field is a strange, paradoxical marriage between the entirely objective – science – and the entirely subjective – happiness. It is a domain full of complexities, contentions and confusion – for one thing, pinning down an exact definition of happiness is no easy task. ‘It’s difficult to define happiness, as there are so many facets to it,’ says Cape Town psychiatrist Dr Liz Legg. ‘Pleasure, engagement, accomplishments, relationships, physical health, meaning and purpose – all of these play a part in the level of happiness people experience.’
Given the blurriness around the concept itself, it’s not surprising that controversy also rages around what gives rise to and influences feelings of wellbeing. One debate is whether ‘happiness causes happiness’, as many in the field of positive psychology claim. This idea was sparked by a famous German study in 1988, in which researchers required subjects to hold a pencil between either their teeth or their lips, forming either a smile or a frown, and then rated them on a humour scale while watching cartoons. The researchers found that those subjects who were involuntarily smiling as they used their teeth found the cartoons funnier, which led them to conclude that the physical act of smiling – even if faked – can trigger a release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals into the brain.
Since then, several other studies have garnered support for the idea that acting happy can get you closer to the real thing, with some researchers citing the role of neural pathways as a reference. Think of the way in which drops of water tend to run down the same trickle path – so too, does the energy flowing through our brains tend to travel down the pathways which offer the least resistance. In other words, the more we think negatively, the more habitual those thoughts become and the more they translate into feelings of unhappiness. To break entrenched patterns of negativity, we need to direct our thoughts along more positive pathways, effectively rewiring our brains, say many scientists.
But in the last few years a burgeoning backlash against the idea of faked happiness has emerged, with recent research indicating that forced demonstrations of positivity can elevate stress levels and do damage to both mental and physical health. For instance, a 2006 study of customer service representatives by scientists at the University of Frankfurt am Main found that those who were forced to be friendly and polite during phone calls had a higher risk of depression and cardiovascular disease.
Research conducted by the University of Michigan in 2011 sheds a little more light on the subject. In this study, researchers followed bus drivers over a period of two weeks, investigating what happened when they engaged in ‘surface acting’ (fake smiles and friendliness) and ‘deep acting’, when they generated true smiles through positive memories, thoughts, or affirmations.
They found that on days the drivers’ smiles were forced, they tended to experience an increase in negativity and withdraw from work, while on days their smiles were underscored by genuine feelings of positivity, their productivity and level of engagement improved, along with their general mood.
This seems to suggest that faking happiness only has any real benefit for the individual is there is some authentic basis to it. If accompanied by feelings of resentment or anger, it appears to do more harm than good – perhaps because energy is still being pumped down the same old negative pathways.