Do you ever feel a responsibility to act happier than you are?

Our attitudes affect the people around us. When we're sad it makes the people who care about us sad too. And when we smile it makes others smile. All moods are shared moods. Even total strangers can pick up your vibes.

So, do you have an obligation to fake happiness if there is nothing to be gained by complaining? Suppose you have a bad day at work - nothing horrible, just a lot of little things going wrong. Sharing your woes might make you feel better, but it will be at the expense of a friend, loved one or coworker who has to listen to it. And dwelling on problems that can't be fixed just gives the problems more power than they deserve.

It usually feels good to complain, which is why we do it.  And of course the situation is reciprocal in the sense that you have to listen to the woes of others just as they listen to yours. So it's a fair arrangement in that sense. But wouldn't we all be better off if everyone just faked it and said they were having a terrific day even if they weren't?

Scientists know that pretending to be happy - specifically by smiling - can make you happier in actuality. And when you have a bad day, what you really want is to feel good again. So for your own good, and for the sake of your loved ones, shouldn't you be a huge phony and say your day went great? From a practical standpoint, that would seem to be your best strategy.

I practice a version of this type of self-hypnosis - and that's what it is - every time someone asks "How are you?" I always answer "Great" or "Terrific" no matter how my day is really going. I do that partly because it helps manipulate me into a good mood and partly because I know it gives the person who asked a little boost. That's how we terrific people roll.

In the course of a normal day, folks might ask how you are feeling several times. Imagine saying you are terrific a thousand times a year. That much reinforcement of a message has to have an impact on your brain over time. If instead you say you are merely "good" a thousand times a year, will that lock you into mediocrity? I think it might.

We humans leave a lot of happiness on the table by believing our moods are caused entirely by our luck on any given day plus our genetic makeup. But I think moods are 80% controllable by lifestyle. If you exercise, get enough sleep, eat well, and project a positive attitude you can generally have a good day even if the facts of the day argue otherwise.

Obviously no one can act happy in the face of genuine tragedy or bad news of the larger variety. And clinical depression probably isn't much helped by fake smiling. But for the everyday ups and downs of mood, I think you control those if you want to. You just have to decide if you're in charge of your own mood or you want to delegate that decision to chance. In my experience, at least half of the population delegates their moods to chance. That's a lot of lost opportunity for happiness.

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Mar 5, 2013
What if you wake up everyday and at some point tell yourself how much you hate yourself and what a dissapointment you are? I'm going on about 13 years...
Feb 28, 2013
Been doing this for more than a decade, prompted by my friend Rick who answers the stock question "how are you?" with a wildly enthusiastic "I'm fantastic!". Even if it has no effect on his own mood this (possibly contrived) ebullience makes him more fun to be around, and dozens of times I've watched people exposed to this strategy for the first time pause and consciously re-examine their own state of wellbeing for the better.

So I go with "I'm magnificent" or "I'm marvelous" when anyone asks me. It cheers me up. It cheers them up. It's at least a change from "I'm fine". What's not to like?
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Feb 26, 2013
I'm cheerful most of the time, feeling really great. All I require for my happiness is a good night's sleep and a couple of hours of free time for myself (to watch a movie, play sports, write comments on Dilbert Blog...).

Unfortunately, this "fake happiness" thingy works only on people who we don't know or who are just acquaintances. Just ask my wife. If things are going really great and I act accordingly, great.

But if things are anything but super-duper, hunky-dory - or if there is the slightest wrinkle on the horizon - and I say that "everything is OK and I feel great", she'll snap at me that I "just don't care and doesn't understand".

After our 19 years together and 2 kids, the only solution that worked for me is - get ready for it! - TO PRETEND THAT I'M IN A BAD MOOD AND TO COMPLAIN ABOUT EVERYTHING!

Yes! I don't know if it's just my wife or all women, but when I'm in a bad mood or pretend to be in a bad mood, she lights up, smiles at me, comforts me and is generally a nicer person.

Of course, pretending to feel lousy makes you feel lousy after awhile, so I have to be careful not to overdo it. That's why I try to keep that tactic for her "special days" during every month...
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Feb 26, 2013
Yeesh. Don't ever come to Ireland, then. I've lived here for 13 years, and I still can't get used to the way "how are you?" is abused. They don't say "hello" here, they go straight to "how are you", but don't make the mistake of answering that question honestly. People don't actually want to know how you are, you're supposed to say "grand" regardless of the reality. This is not a country in touch with its feelings ..!
Feb 26, 2013
When I was young I used to be prone to expressing my real feelings, whatever they were, due to a belief in being "honest" (to a fault, clearly). My mother was a diligent adherent to the pollyannaish 'fake it till you make it' theory of mood and life management. So I really resented people being 'phony' like this. My mother was usually angry (it was taboo to be a divorcee in those days, and people judged her unfairly on a regular basis). So, she had a reason, but she always kept her presentation polished to pleasantness. Rebelling against this emotional dishonesty, I made it a point to be "REAL" with everyone.

Then I later on read a passage from Miss Manners who advised that if you are feeling poorly physically or otherwise, the polite thing to do was to go home and draw the shades until you are able to properly present yourself again. I was raised to practice and appreciate manners so this made sense to me. The general point was driven home when I experienced what it was like to be on the receiving end of someone expressing their troubles when I was having a really good day and was not prepared to offer sympathy to someone in the opposite mood. Listening to that person brought my mood down many notches. Finally, I read an interesting piece of advice which admonished: 'ennoble your pain through art'. That seemed like the best idea for creating art and allowing a safe outlet for emotional honesty that doesn't take a crap on anyone's day unless they want it to.

On that note, I also noticed that when I was in an off mood, talking with other people in a similar mood allowed us both to fully engage in processing our feelings in a way that was refreshing and healing like nothing else. But if I was in a good mood, that sort of talk was the last thing I wanted to hear. I call this sort of thing an "energy mismatch". So, when my husband and I are not getting along, we have both learned to recognize an energy mismatch. If I am feeling sluggish and groggy in the morning and he is full of zip and vigor, he knows now that is an energy mismatch and we both go bouncing or dragging off our separate ways with complete tolerance and understanding of our temporary mood differences. Likewise, he is able to zip between moods rapidly. "My dial goes from 1, 2, to 11" he likes to say. Myself, I change moods more gradually, on the order of 15-30 minutes to go from one state of mind to another. Another thing we understand about each other and tolerate.

Anyway, back to the question: should you fake happiness? It is polite to do so. There are the right places and people for such things, if you are lucky enough to have a good friend. If not, you can channel your grousing into art if you are so inclined. As a result though, I have become a bit of a mood and manners nazi. I have a small list of cashiers and store clerks whom I routinely avoid in order to preserve my good mood. Co-workers with miserable attitudes I treat politely, but am unlikely to indulge in commiseration anymore unless I need to. Selfish I suppose, but that's how I cope with it all.

I have one more aside to make which is I spent the majority of my life in California where the unwritten law there is "NO WHINING". Should you violate said law, they will beat it out of you rigorously until you learn. I have since moved to Washington State where whining is encouraged and indulged in by everyone. Definitely had a energy mismatch there, but I have been conditioned by California and now am firmly planted in the "no whining" side of things.
Feb 26, 2013
"Serenity now, serenity now"

Serenity now, insanity later!
Feb 26, 2013
To jonestauffer: I assume you mean "personal" rather than "personnel," although I once worked for a cranky supervisor who though he could feel better by making personnel changes.

As to several of the other comments: I believe it's easier to fool our brains than we think. But I admit there's no way to test this. It's similar to the observation that people who do crossword puzzles don't have Altzheimer's disease. Is that a preventive, or is it merely a symptom showing that the puzzle solver still has a good memory?

Feb 26, 2013
Sharing of unhappiness is not always motivated by a need to get sympathy. Sometimes it is a way of trying to find a solution to a problem one is struggling with. At times it is an attempt to gain validation for your actions though they didn't get the results one expected.

I agree with you that there are times we have a responsibility to act happier than we are. But there is a small range of !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ where this is applicable. Continuous and unavoidable physical pain is one example. If you blindly apply this rule to all kinds of s-ituations, you risk growing with the perspective of one person when you could have grown with more.

Let me give you a small everyday example:
A few weeks back your boss rebuked you because you did a task a certain way. So you changed your method to the one he proposed. Today, a side effect of his method happened and he rebuked you for having done the task in the way you did, going so far as to say you should have been smart enough to do it the way your had done it first, completely side-tracking the point that it was he who made you change your method. You come home thinking the ramifications of standing up to him the next time and wondering how much do you need this job to tolerate such a boss.
Should you discuss this with your wife?
I think you should. Of course, not if she is waiting with your favorite dish at the table but sometime. If you don't, you are alone in your thoughts of how unjust the world is and how stuck you are in your stupid job with your stupid boss and such negative thoughts. If the thoughts spiral down, you might start feeling bad about the family that needs you to do a job in the first place. The whole burden of becoming positive falls on you. But if you do discuss with your wife, she might point out that your boss is not that bad generally, and is it possible that he actually forgot about the previous incident. Or she might agree with you that he is insensitive and try to make you happy by doing something happy together. Or she might simply suggest that she appreciates the kind of things you have to handle in this job. Or she might recount all the previous mistreatments and suggest that this one makes too many and argue with you to change your job. All of which you could also have thought but you are biased and only when the heat of the incident is behind you will be able to make a non-poor choice.

I feel there are many more possibilities of ending such 'sharing of unhappiness' episode with creating peace and happiness than a simple 'spreading of misery'. The formula you propose is not flawed but it should be applied with care. Mostly, when someone complains, they are looking for a solution or at least validation for their motivations, not trying to beat the listener into fellow misery.
Feb 26, 2013
The concept of "acting" happy no matter your actual feelings seems flawed.
What is the real point of putting on a show? "Acting" happy when you are not is a lie.
We need to be real.
People need to accept us as who we are, not some "actor" playing out a socially acceptable role.
If we are constantly unhappy or in a dark mood, then we need to make personnel changes that will result in an improvement to our attitude.
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Feb 26, 2013
I suggest shooting people who frown at you. Not only does it make you feel instantly upbeat but also removes the potential for future downies.
Feb 26, 2013
When people ask how I'm doing, I tell them "Groovy". That actually makes people stop and think - no one says that. You can't help but smile, either because it grabbed you, or you just think I'm a serious dork.....
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Feb 26, 2013
Nice blog, nice comments!

I usually try to handle bad situations (bad PHBs, bad projects, ...) in a Dilbert-like way. Try to abuse it, try to laugh about it either openly or only inside. But when my mental or physical power is running low, I slowly lose this abillity. I recognize this as a serious warning to protect myself against all evil.

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Feb 26, 2013
The smiley thing isn't self-hypnosis. It's more of a short-circuit. Your brain is so lazy that it checks with your face to see how you're feeling. If you're smiling, it assumes you are feeling fine and gives you a boost of happy juice to keep the feeling going. Reminds me of Grade 4. Each kid in my row would copy the answers of the kid behind them. The kid at the end of the row would go to the front and copy the answer of that kid.

When nobody knew the answer, we all got it wrong. Unless there was some sort of group-think or wisdom of crowds involved.
Feb 25, 2013
I don't know about "happier" but as a manager I feel a responsibility to appear more confident and upbeat than I sometimes am.

Others have mentioned acting happier in front of children, something I specifically disagree with. I don't burden my children with adult problems that are beyond their understanding, but I think it is important for them to understand that their parents are people, too, and have good and bad days like everyone else. It's good practice for them to learn how to empathize with others, and I don't want them to ever feel like they aren't getting "the real me".
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 25, 2013
My mother freely shared her unhappiness with her immediate family - including the often expressed emotion that she wanted to die.

This was not healthy.

It also led to my being acutely aware that human beings do have a choice about whether or not to share their emotional state with others - and that over-sharing unhappiness is self-centered and destructive.

I don't necessarily feel responsible to act happier than I feel, but I do feel responsible not to share my misery. Last month, my youngest son (and the last one left at home) deserted me for Europe for 7 months. It was tough. No way I was (am) going to dwell on that though - either privately or publicly. My kids don't need to feel sorry for me because they want to go off in the world and do all the things I always hoped they'd be able to do. No one else needs to shed any tears for me either. I just need to get over it and move on.

Dwelling on misery seems both self-indulgent and manipulative. I don't see an upside to it.

If someone asks me how I'm doing, I probably won't say "great" because it isn't true. I will say "I'm doing well" and then possibly talk about stuff I'm actually doing. I usually have enough diverse projects going on at once that I can find something to talk about that is of interest to the other person - before shifting the focus back to them.
Feb 25, 2013
It's true, but not a new observation. One of the proverbs listed in "American Negro Folklore," by J. Mason Brewer (1968) is:

"Rheumatism and happiness both get bigger if you keep telling folks about them."

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 25, 2013
I'm on board.
As far as what's socially acceptable, I recall a recent immigrant telling me that people asked "how are you?" and then seemed awkward when she answered (usually with some ambivalence). I had to explain that it is a greeting, and that in most cases she should say "fine" - they really weren't prepared for a real answer. I did continue with some nuance, too.

Interestingly, it seems that in Britain the response to "how are you?' is "how are you." (period instead of question mark intentional). It felt odd to me. On the one side it's asking a question, as if showing concern, while clearly having so little concern as to not want an answer. On the other, it's ignoring the question to pose your own but without sticking around for the answer. I know it's not intended that way; it's just evolved as a greeting, but still...
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 25, 2013
Scott, you're on a roll. Posting one good blog after another. Made me feel good to compliment you. Hope it made you feel good to read it. Happiness isn't what a lot of people think it is. ie: going on vacation, buying a sports car, etc. A good book on the subject is, "Authentic Happiness by, Martin Seligman." Or if you really want to dig your heels into this read anything by, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Feb 25, 2013
What you are describing is behaviorisim, which scientists have known to be !$%*!$%* for 50 years. However, in this case the !$%*!$%* happens to be close to correct. Feeling your bodily reactions amplifies your emotional feelings, so smiling while unhappy might keep you from feeling even more unhappy.

I wouldn't recommend haxoring with this too much. It can't be good for you.
Feb 25, 2013
Scott, I regularly complain about my day, but I try to do it in a Dilbereque way, pointing out the absurd humor in my woes. That way I get to bit.ch and not bum out the other person.

For example, a VP pulled in the due date to send a proposal to a customer to tomorrow, but he has refused to review the Executive Summary I gave him nearly 2 weeks ago. His modus operandi is to wait until something is printed before providing his edits. I swear that after he's dead and buried, a hand will pop out of the ground with his requested edits for his tombstone.

See how nicely that works? Thanks Scott for the template for how to get the satisfaction of complaining without bringing someone else down.
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