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Some people would have you believe that “putting on a happy face” can turn a dark day sunny and shift your mood from glum to gleeful. Those people are probably psychopaths.
The truth is that burying emotions and feigning friendliness can be detrimental to our health. People in the service industry often feel pressure to be chipper for customers, what researchers call “emotional labor,” and those shallow smiles can actually be mentally and physically taxing.
Genuine joy, and other emotions for that matter, come from the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for some our deepest impulses, such as passion and terror. When we fake the feeling, we are going against what the amygdala wants.
“People just put expressions on their faces without any idea what kind of stress it’s causing,” said Neal Ashkanasy, a professor of business management at Queensland University in Brisbane, Australia. “… Your brain has to do a lot of work to keep that under control, and it uses physical resources to do it.”
Putting on this public face isn’t just tiring in the short term; it can be unhealthy in the long term. People who are consistently forced to ignore their true emotional state can suffer from back and neck strain and stomachaches. A study of bus drivers who admitted to faking friendliness during the day had higher rates of insomnia, anxiety and emotional exhaustion. A similar study of hotel workers found the ones who spent the most time pretending to be happy at work were less helpful at home. Some more recent studies indicate that these workers are also more likely to excessively drink alcohol or over eat after they get off the job.
“You feel like you don’t have any willpower,” said Alicia Grandey, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University and former Starbucks employee.
Studies also show that service industry employees in countries with less emphasis on “service with a smile,” like France, where you’re as likely to get a subtle dig as a compliment from a shop clerk, experience less stress and negative health effects from their jobs.
“If they’re smiling, it’s because they want to,” Grandey says.