Not acknowledging to ourselves and others that we are having a bad time complicates and prolongs the process of managing and controlling our negative emotions.
The positive psychology of our time keeps telling us that we must make efforts to be happy and, to a certain extent, it makes the individual responsible for his or her well-being, without taking into account his or her situation or context. Happiness is perceived as a goal to be reached and, as such, the fear of failure is more than present. This often leads to faking it in front of others, for fear of being judged or seen as having a problem with oneself. In reality, the culture of pretense is present even in people who aren't really going through a hard time; in the age of Instagram or TikTok, no matter what you wear, what stands out the most is always a big smile.
This silent dictatorship of happiness, if you will, has resulted in a lot of people who are going through a difficult time tending to fake it more than they need to, making things very difficult for the people who are with them and accompanying them, as they are not fully aware of the turbulent emotional tide brewing behind their self-indulgent smile. This phenomenon has become so widespread that mental health experts have not hesitated to refer to this syndrome as smiling depression, which carries a specific set of risks compared to the rest of the depression-related disorders.
The belief that “I'm happy because I'm smiling” can be counterproductive to the thought “I'm smiling because I'm happy.”
“The term smiling depression refers to depressive states that present the symptoms associated with these disorders, but in which the diagnosed subject shows a desire to hide,” explained Vanessa Rodríguez Pousada, a health psychologist, in another article we dedicated to this pathology. “And this desire translates into an active position so that those around them do not perceive the discomfort they are facing.”
Smile… despite everything?
Emotions, if suppressed, are more difficult to manage. Just as when we get angry at someone and need to vent to a third party, symptoms such as sadness or lack of motivation, if hidden under a continuous grimace of satisfaction, can worsen and become too intense to understand in order to cope. “Smiling to maintain a facade is a form of self-deception and only delays the inevitable,” explains Mark Travers, an American psychologist, in a recent article on the subject published in Psychology Today. “While we sometimes need to smile when we are going through a difficult time, constantly divorcing ourselves from our true feelings only worsens our psychological well-being.”
“Continually simulating happiness and positive thinking can lead to a misrepresentation of our true emotional state.”
This contradicts the thesis of the studies which have shown that smiling, despite difficulties, has a positive impact on mental health. It is obvious that one can take things philosophically and even laugh at oneself or one's problems in order to better cope with them. Happiness, yes, to some extent, is contagious, so surrounding yourself with positive people also has an impact on your mood, even if you are not all there at the time.
Travers contradicts this trend with a simple phrase: “The belief that ‘I'm happy because I'm smiling' may be counterproductive to ‘I'm smiling because I'm happy,'” he says, drawing on a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology who noted that it is not the act of smiling alone that increases happiness, but the interpretation of the smile as a reflection of happiness. In this sense, the smile is only relevant if it is justified, it is a gesture that responds to an emotion that we have internalized and that, therefore, we rationalize, even if in a rapid and unconscious way.
In any case, if you are going through a bad moment, the first step after realizing it, being aware of it and accepting it, is to seek help. Avoidance won't get you out of anything, nor will false smiles or pretending to others that you are fine. We need to be honest with ourselves, and if we feel we can't do something (for example, go to an event that promises a collective display of happiness and good cheer), we shouldn't feel pressured to do it. We should also be wary of social media posts by people who are supposedly doing just fine.
“Continually pretending to be happy and thinking positively can lead to a misrepresentation of your true emotional state,” Travers concludes. “This can be confusing and influence the people you come in contact with to interact in an unconstructive manner. More importantly, it prevents you from seeking outside help and the mental support you need.”