Campus & Community

Faking happiness for fun and profit:

5 min read

Study: Smile and world smiles back

Laura Morgan
Laura Morgan Roberts of the Business School discovered the power of positive thinking at work. (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

You can be happier at work if you smile more, even if you have to fake it. Suppressing anger and other negative feelings, on the other hand, leads to less job satisfaction and more thoughts of quitting.

These suggestions for getting along come from studying the experiences of 103 working college students. It was done by Laura Morgan Roberts of the Harvard Business School and Stéphane Côté of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Canada.

“We found that presenting yourself to be happier than you really are has positive benefits not just for those around you but for yourself,” says

Roberts. “Suppressing negative feelings has the opposite effect.”

Côté and Roberts reached their conclusions by quizzing the students before and after they worked four weeks at part-time jobs. They were employed mostly as wait staff, salesclerks, teacher’s aides, and in other service jobs in Ann Arbor, Mich. Seventy-eight males and 33 females, including whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and multiracials, took part. The published report of their happiness and unhappiness appears in last month’s issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The authors admit that their findings come from a small study done only with students who worked part-time, but they believe that its results could have a wide impact in the workplace, especially if confirmed by larger studies.

Roberts notes that, while the students accentuated the positive, they didn’t totally fake it. If others don’t feel sincerity in your voice and smile, they won’t react positively to you, she says. The waiter or salesperson who announces “excellent choice,” or “this deal is really unbeatable,” seldom draws much of a positive reaction.

“When you cross the line from being thoughtful in the way you present yourself to being duplicitous, your sincerity is questioned and the opportunity to develop connections with people is lost,” Roberts notes. “But when you display sincere positive emotions, people respond to you more favorably, and that makes the experience happier for you. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Emotions at work

Roberts points out that accentuating the positive has applications beyond smiling when you hand someone ice cream or pizza-to-go. Displaying happiness is good practice in dealing, not only with your boss and co-workers, but with a spouse, siblings, roommates, and others you see every day. Exaggerating pleasantness can smooth interactions between married people and between roommates. Conversely, holding back discussion of things that annoy you raises levels of stress for everyone.

Organizational psychologists refer to such behavior as “emotion regulation” and “impression management.” It covers situations like controlling your emotions when the boss suddenly calls you into her office. When that happens, “don’t immediately interpret it as a threat,” Roberts advises. Threats evoke fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions. “Try to think of the summons as neutral,” she says. “Then go into the meeting with an open mind.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you won’t get bad news. But whatever happens, thinking positive makes it easier to grasp and deal with the new information. “Negative feelings make you more narrow-minded,” Roberts adds. “You become less able to deal with a new situation in a constructive way. And you generate fewer positive emotions while interacting with others.”

In the present anemic economy, frustrations are plentiful while jobs are not. Many older, experienced people have been forced to take less prestigious, lower-paying jobs. Additionally, Roberts notes, “services, from those in department stores to those in doctors’ offices, are becoming more superficial. It’s a time when forcing a broader smile is important to your mental health.”

Race and profiling

Roberts also studies how people regulate their emotional displays when they deal with those of a different race, gender, or age group. She has found that black medical students use two different strategies in negative situations that are nothing to smile about, such as unpleasant reactions from white students and teachers. Some of them try to educate whites and others about the positive aspects of being black. Others suppress their racial identity in an effort to “fit in.”

Both strategies work, Roberts has found. She recommends that individuals use whichever one they’re most comfortable with.

Many blacks and other racial groups feel singled out for stops and searches by police. They might like to tell officers about their frustration with this behavior. But, Roberts notes, “that may lead to a hostile situation or arrest. Thus many chose to suppress their feelings. You bear the stress of an emotionally unsatisfactory encounter, but if that keeps you from being arrested or further harassed, the trade-off is probably worth it.

“Suppression isn’t always bad, and oversmiling doesn’t necessarily mean faking it,” Roberts sums up. “Either way, it’s up to each person to figure out how much is too much, and how to manage emotions to create the most positive experience for you and those around you.”