When It Comes to Mood, Is It Better to Fake Happiness?

February 5, 2010 at 2:42 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | 2 Comments

Tragedy Mask

I may prefer tragedy, but in the business world, people like a feel-good family look.

So here’s the question of the day: Is there any value in heroically faking a good mood?

I began by thinking, no, if only because I’m a lousy actor. Even people who know me only casually can tell immediately whether or not I’m depressed. Some people lack perception, or have an investment in ignoring my mood, but overall even when I’d rather not talk about it or would like to hide it out of pride, most people can easily tell how I feel. (The sad fact is, a coworker who sometimes stops by my office to chat recently asked me if I’d had a death in the family — he couldn’t think of any other explanation for my very apparent misery. Oh my.) If this is the case, why should I even try to hide it?

There are two excellent reasons, I think. First, evidence exists that faking good feelings can boost your mood. Simply smiling, for example, will tend to lift your spirits even if your grin feels like a terrifying rictus.

What’s more, constant moping can threaten your professional standing. Your friends may tolerate it, but it’s reasonable for your colleagues to expect that you be cheerful and willing to help out. Perhaps in a perfect world everyone would bleed with tender compassion for everyone they meet, but they don’t, and expecting them to is just another instance of “I shouldn’t have to…” thinking.

Let me define that train of argument. I’ve heard friends say, “I shouldn’t have to dress up to see clients! I work in a casual industry!” or “I shouldn’t have to cover my tattoos!” Well, sure. People should see beyond appearances and judge you on your behavior and professional ability. But they don’t. So why create ill-will out of some perverse sense of entitlement?

Further, I admit that I judge people unfairly every day. When people are consistently even five minutes late for meetings — not to mention 20 minutes late to work in the morning — I feel that they’re showing disrespect for me and the company. When people make incessant personal phone calls, I take it as evidence that their lives are out of control, and I question their professionalism. I think these conclusions are reasonable. But a woman who wears tight clothes or too much perfume is just as evil a menace. So, yeah, I don’t resent demands that I demonstrate a positive, can-do attitude. (Though I refuse to multitask.)

And I’ve realized recently that my grim demeanor may affect my professional life more than I know. Let me offer a couple of illustrative instances.

1. One of the engineers in my aisle never smiles or meets my eyes when we pass each other. On some level, I feel that he doesn’t like me. But, um, I never smile or look at him either. So who’s the unfriendly one?

2. Even worse, my office mate has taken to squatting one door down with our tech lead. This, despite the fact that I’m scheduled to move to another building entirely in a couple of weeks. She’s a veritable model of unprofessional leakage of the personal into work hours, but I still feel hurt. True, when her friends visit I keep my eyes glued to my screen and click away. And I have been seething generally lately. But I never wear intrusive perfume or play annoying music, and since these are my pet peeves, I feel that refraining makes me the model office mate.

When I’m honest with myself, though, I know that I have been a little black rain cloud for months now, and that I’ve probably huffed and flounced during her endless socializing. I may well look pointedly at my watch when she walks in late from 20 to 45 minutes late every day. So by her standards, I’m unpleasantly arrogant. If she were to complain to our section head, it would pose a real problem. Our boss calls us “The DM Team,” and upper management carries on a non-stop propaganda campaign to encourage fairness, respect, diversity, and team play. I can sneer and mock all I want, but by doing so I risk my reputation as a can-do team player, and in our line of work that reads as poor customer service.

In short, I will defend to the death my right to snarl and snap in my personal life, but I don’t think it’s especially defensible at work.

All of that leads me to conclude that it would be to my advantage to make more of an effort, even if that means setting quotas for smiles and conversations struck up.

The good news is, I find myself smiling spontaneously around the test and software engineers. My obdurate hatred of Mission Planning is even beginning to melt. So perhaps I’ll feel less need to fake it once I move in with them permanently.

Love to all.



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  1. I think there’s something to the idea that an actual good mood can follow a put-on good mood. It’s better than getting into a bad-mood recursive loop, in which reflecting on your bad mood puts you in an even worse one. Sure, it’s a thing of artifice, but maybe Oscar Wilde’s advice is appropriate here — “humanity’s first task is to be as artificial as possible. What the second task is, no one has yet discovered.”

  2. I remember a discussion of this in one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. Steven Maturin was speculating on whether or not faking happiness would bring about positive feelings. If I ever run across it again, I’ll quote it here. Do you remember it?

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