The Dangers of Fake Happiness

We’re living in the age of fake happiness. It’s all around us, everywhere we look. (Yes, especially on social media.) But the most dangerous place to find it is within yourself.

Even the whole idea of FAKE IT ‘TILL YOU MAKE IT has been on the rise for years now. The data proves this.

Source: Google Trends

Some people believe that fake happiness actually can help you achieve true happiness. Turn that frown upside down! Put on a smile! Lead with your physiology and your psychology will follow. There’s even studies that show that a fake smile can actually make you feel better. (We’ll look at what the science actually says on that topic a bit later in here.)

Fake Happiness Culture

And there are cultural factors that play into this too. In the US for example, people are (comparatively) less comfortable when someone expresses negative feelings. Ask someone “How are you?” and the cultural mandate in most places dictates that you’re either “Great!”, or “Awesome!”, or (hopefully not) “I’m okay, thanks. How about you?” (Because being okay really means: I’m terrible, but I know I can’t—or don’t want to—talk about this with you.) In Germany, if you ask someone how they are, they will actually want an answer and want to hear what’s going on. In Japan, it would be completely inappropriate to express personal feelings in that context.

But it’s fair to say that globally, no matter where you are in the world, the rise of social media has shifted cultures more towards normalizing fake happiness. There’s an almost relentless pursuit to always happy feelings, always display positive emotions. Everything is going great!

Why “Bad” Feelings Are Good For You

But ultimately, there’s a reason why you feel negative emotions, and it’s not just that you you don’t put on a happy face often enough.

Emotions are signals, important data points for ourselves, they are motivators that propel us to take action (or inhibitors that prevent us from taking action). As difficult and hard it can be to deal with all these various feelings we’re experiencing in the course of a day, they ultimately help us navigate life better. This might be hard believe, especially when you see someone who is screwup up their life because their emotions are out of control—but believe me, these people’s lives would be much worse if they couldn’t access their emotions.

What does it say about yourself when you fake happiness? It says that you don’t have something real to feel happy about.

A Dangerous Depression

When you imagine a depressed person, you typically think of someone who’s lethargic, with a sad expression on their face, maybe staying in bed all day—but in reality, many people with depression look nothing like that.

Fact: Around 10 percent of the US population is suffering from depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

There’s even a phenomenon called smiling depression, where people suffering from it look perfectly happy on the outside, while feeling terribly sad and desperate within.

People who fake happiness sometimes suffer from depression, unbeknownst to themselves even. They might brush their feelings aside, thinking they’re just something “you deal with” by acting like they don’t exist. Behind their pretty fake being hide harsh realities: low self-esteem, anxiety, chronic stress, even thoughts of suicide.

Faking Happiness Can Make You Want To Avoid Social Situations

Faking happiness is taxing. You’re pretending to feel different from how you actually feel. If you do this for long enough, it will cause a sense of chronic tension and stress, which is very bad for your health and well-being.

If you always have to put on an act whenever you interact with people, you’ll eventually get tired of it. You might even start to resent genuinely happy people. If on the other hand you learn to truly express yourself when socializing with others, you might find that you actually get emotionally recharged.

Bipolar People Are Great At Faking Happiness

Bipolar people often put on a happy mask as a coping mechanism. They’re subjected to extreme emotional swings, and sometimes actually displaying how they feel when they’re down can just be too much for the people around them.

But there are problems for people with bipolar disorder who fake happiness, which Natasha Tracy, who herself suffers from this mental illness, described:

  • Feeling like a fake and a liar
  • Feeling like no one knows the real you
  • Not working out real emotions
  • Being freaking exhausted all the time because of the effort
  • Not wanting to leave your house because of the effort required to fake happiness

So even though it can be sometimes useful for people with bipolar disorder to fake happiness, it’s also important that they’re capable of expressing their authentic self, the good and the bad. It’s not easy to strike the right balance between not burdening others with their extreme feelings, while also prioritizing their own happiness in the long run.

Getting Really Good at Faking Happiness Is the Worst Thing That Could Happen to You

There are people who are so good at faking happiness that you’d never guess how they really feel inside. If you look at their facial expressions, you’d think they’re living the perfect life. The sad thing is that they’re not just tricking you; they’re tricking themselves.

In the world of sales it’s said that you got to buy what you’re selling, which means that you have to believe in what you say. People who are really good at convincing others of a lie are actually really good at convincing themselves of a lie. This leads to a lack of self-awareness.

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The dissonance of how you feel within and how you act outside can contribute to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Eventually these people end up making all kinds of really poor life choices because they themselves don’t know who they are anymore. The longer this goes on, the more messy and entangled their lives become. And the farther away from real happiness they end up.

One example of this? If you never are your true self around people, they might come to like you for the version you show them. Yes, “you” are being liked. “You” are making friends. Only that you is not really you. That you is your act. And keeping up that act eats up a lot of energy in the long run. The longer this goes on, the more lonely and isolated you feel.

Forced Happiness Leads To Miserableness

The more you try to force yourself to be happy, the more miserable you become. And even positive thoughts only carry you so far—there’s more to true happiness than just recalling “good” thoughts. Studies have shown that people who care the most about being happy report 50% less frequent positive emotions, 35% less satisfaction about their life, 75% more depressive symptoms, and 15% less psychological well-being (which is term to describe a set of traits like self-esteem, positive relations with others, meaning and purpose in life, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of competence in tackling life’s challenges).

[Source: Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion]

When should you fake a smile?

Ultimately we should strive to not have to fake a smile at all. When you can live a life where you can life your full truth at any given moment in any situation with all kinds of people, whether it be in a personal, professional, public, or private setting—then you are living a really fulfilled life.

That said, this is more an ideal to strive towards than a standard most of us can actually live up to. So here’s a few situations where faking a smile can have a positive effect on you:

  • In social situations where you just need to function. You’re with your coworkers and have to attend a meeting? This is not the time to cloud the room with your heavy energy.
  • When you’re just feeling a little bit down and want a quick and simple pick-me-up. We all do this during our day in different ways. We do it with coffee, snacks, chocolate, cigarettes, social media, music, YouTube, Netflix, a drink, podcasts, and in a myriad other ways. Sometimes a little jolt will help us snap out of a temporary down feeling, and faking happiness is better than lighting up a cigarette.

When not to fake happiness?

That fake it ’til you make it smile is a nice little trick to sometimes play on yourself. But if you overdo this it’ll turn into a completely different beast: You’ll start to feel inauthentic and fake.

Sometimes the best way to deal with negative thoughts and feelings is to express them, not to repress them. You’re angry? Let it out. You’re really sad? Let it out.

Keeping all that emotional energy that builds up locked up tight within yourself isn’t healthy, even if you cover it up with the prettiest smile in the world.

In fact, the more attractive the are, the more at risk of falling into this trap you are: If your attractive smile gets you positive attention from others, that positive attention can actually make you feel better in the moment—except that the issue which originally upset you or made you sad is still simmering, still unresolved. You just got caught up in a new wave of emotions related to that other person.

Here’s a good Litmus test: Are you able to honestly share with those people closest to you how you feel (especially when you feel bad)? And do you actually do it? If the answer is no, then you’re depriving yourself from social support that you can get from friends and loved ones, and the emotional relief that comes from simply “confessing” our darker feelings, whether they be sadness, anger, regret, or fear.

How to fake a smile the right way

If you decide to fake a smile in order to trick your psychology, here’s how to do it the right way:

  • Put on a bright smile. Don’t overthink it, just smile, you don’t need to create the perfect fake smile for this. In fact, psychologists conducted an experiment where they had people hold a pencil between their teeth—and act which would engage many of the same muscles we use when smiling. Even doing that made people feel better.

    There was even research conducted with fMRIs that showed that engaging the facial muscle groups which become activated when we smile can improve your mood.

    [Source: Chang J, Zhang M, Hitchman G, Qiu J, Liu Y. When you smile, you become happy: evidence from resting state task-based fMRIBiol Psychol. 2014;103:100–106. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.08.003]
  • Sit (or stand) straight and erect. In fact, if you can, move your entire body. A study from 2018 showed that simply standing up straight will make you feel more confident.

    [Source: Miragall M, Etchemendy E, Cebolla A, Rodríguez V, Medrano C, Baños RM. Expand your body when you look at yourself: The role of the posture in a mirror exposure taskPLoS ONE. 2018;13(3):e0194686.  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0194686]
  • Visualize how you would look and act if you’d feel really happy. Then mimic that.
  • Think positively. Recall something funny that made you laugh, or something good that made you feel happy. Think of something you’re grateful for, or something in your future that you look forward to.
  • Do this for a couple of minutes. Your physiology can influence your psychology.

Will this work every time? No. But even if it only works 3 times out of ten, it’s still better than sipping a coffee, eating a snack, or getting a quick dopamine hit from social media.

Practice True Self-Care

Stop trying to suppress how you truly feel, and practice self-acceptance. That means acknowledging and embracing yourself no matter how you feel in the moment: the good and the bad. It’s all part of that unique mix that makes you who you are, and it’s what creates the unique gifts you can share the world. But only if you fully embrace yourself.

Get in touch with your true feelings. Accept and appreciate them. Have the courage to share and express them with others—that’s how you’ll build truly meaningful relationships, and can achieve genuine happiness.

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