A Fake Smile May Backfire
Christopher Philip

Fake Smile May BackfireIn a new study lead by Aparna Labroo, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, it was found that a fake smile might do more damage to your overall happiness than not smiling at all, but only under certain conditions. Read on to find out.

The findings runs counter existing research that says that the more people smile, the more positive they feel, the so called “facial feedback hypothesis.” This says that when people are induced to smile, they understand that their face is displaying a happy emotion, which tells them that they are happy.

Subjects were split into two groups. One was told about the “reactive smile-theory” which says that smiles actually reflect real happiness while the other was told about “proactive smile-theory” which says that smiling causes happiness.

Across three studies, more frequent smiling did not result in increased wellbeing over infrequent smiling. In fact, it was only those who believe that smiling is reactive or reflecting happiness who gained benefit from smiling. In those who were taught that smiling causes happiness, the “proactive smile-theory” group, frequent smiling actually resulted in less wellbeing than infrequent smiling.

“Here, frequent smiling backfires, evoking less happiness than infrequent smiling, which in turn reduces wellbeing,” say the researchers.

“Thus, smiling by itself does not increase happiness, or wellbeing. Instead, the belief that one must already be happy when one smiles is what increases happiness, and as a result, wellbeing.”

“From a practical standpoint, our data imply that making people who are feeling bad smile could backfire and make them feel (or at least think they feel) worse because they may interpret smiling as trying to become happy,” according to the researchers. ”Smiling frequently would remind them of being not happy.”

The takeaway message is simple, and not particularly confusing: Smiling among people who are feeling down is quite counterproductive. You can’t just fake a smile, but if you do, and wish for it to boost happiness, plan on performing some mental gymnastics to jump start the process.

Best yet, actually work on ways to produce real happiness and real smiles!


Labroo, Aparna A.; Anirban Mukhopadhyay and Ping Dong. Not Always The Best Medicine: Why Frequent Smiling Can Reduce Wellbeing. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2014; 53:156-162.

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