Study shows that not all smiles created equal

By Lily Hicks

Courtesy Pba.org

Researchers at Michigan State University are finding despite what employers and moms say, smiling may not always be the best option.

A two-week study of 58 bus drivers in the Pacific Northwest found that smiling alone did not improve drivers’ moods – in fact, faking happiness throughout the day correlated positively with daydreaming, thoughts about leaving work and decreased work effort. 

The results of the study are potentially problematic for customer service employers, who often encourage workers to appear happy at all costs, as well as employees who are increasingly told that “putting on a happy face” is the ticket to feeling better.

Study authors Brent Scott, an assistant professor of management at MSU, and Christopher Barnes, a former doctoral student at MSU, found that variables like attitude and work ethic depended less on whether or not drivers smiled throughout the day than on why they smiled.

When Scott and Barnes asked drivers to distinguish between “surface acting” – acting happy without feeling happy at all – and “deep acting” – cultivating happiness using, for example, pleasant memories – they found that drivers who engaged in surface acting more often withdrew from work and felt worse than they had at the beginning of the day than their deep-acting coworkers, who felt better at day’s end.

Kris Kauffman, a senior at the University of Massachusetts who has been driving UMass Transit buses for three years, said the results of the study made sense to him. While Kauffman said that UMass Transit does not order its drivers to have or exhibit a positive attitude, he added that his previous employer, Kmart – a popular American mass merchandising company –required workers to smile throughout their shifts.

“They really encouraged us to smile all the time, and pretty much everyone who worked there was faking the smiling,” said Kauffman. “It was kind of a big joke.”

Kauffman said he has never made a concerted effort to engage in “deep acting” when he feels poorly at work, and explained that he is instead “more prone to just not smile at all.” He expressed doubt that smiling alone could make him feel better.

“I think the act of smiling in and of itself isn’t enough to get me out of my bad mood,” said Kauffman.

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed” spoke similarly about smiling and positive thinking in a videotaped speech addressed to the Royal Society of the Arts in January 2010, three months after the release of her book, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.” Her speech, titled “Smile or Die,” challenged the idea that people need only think positively in order to succeed.

“I began to see a pattern, and find it in more and more aspects of American life: this kind of mandatory optimism and cheerfulness,” Ehrenreich said in the speech.

In her talk, Ehrenreich offered realism as a solution to the “delusion” of positive thinking. For employers in the customer service industry, realism may be incompatible with an organization’s chief goal: to retain – and placate – customers. Scott and Barnes, whose study was published in the February edition of the Academy of Management Journal, instead propose a solution to the symptoms of this “delusion,” one that includes training in “deep acting” techniques.

The need for training in “deep acting” may be greater for women, as females were more negatively affected by surface acting than men, according to the study. In a phone interview from his MSU office, Scott said that gender socialization is the most compelling explanation for the disparity. “Women are expected to express genuine emotion with more intensity than men,” said Scott.

He added, “On days when women are feigning a smile while feeling negative on the inside – that goes against these cultural norms and can be stressful, whereas for men it’s a little more acceptable to do so and so it’s not as problematic.”

Lily Hicks can be reached at [email protected]