Tyranny of Cheer

When and why do you smile? And how often? Do you ever feel pressured to smile? And do you ever wonder why that is? Recently, I’ve been pondering the issue of false cheer in our society—how and why it’s promoted, and its potentially negative influence.

Perhaps you’re wondering how smiling can be bad—after all, the smile generally stands for all that is positive and good. Smiles often appear on the faces of Greek statues of the Archaic period (c. 650-480 BC), and though the significance of the practice is not clear, it is often thought that for the Greeks, the smile represented a state of ideal health and well being Later on, in 18th Century England, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote that smiling was a touch of subtlety that added to the sophistication of the nobility.

Health, well-being, sophistication, nobility… the Greeks, the British, the forefathers of our Western culture… Doesn’t sound too bad… But what happens when we feel pressured to smile or display congeniality for appearance’s sake? For example, those artificial smiles of polite enjoyment you flash your boss when he makes a joke, or the forced smiles of flight attendants as they shuffle up and down the aisles? And how about the quick, tight-lipped smiles strangers are apt to flash you on the subway, bus, or on the streets as they pass by and your eyes happen to meet? When you think about it, it does seem a bit strange: these people don’t know you personally, so why are they smiling at you? All of this brings to mind one thing: social convention.

The roots of this practice originated when people came to settle the New World. There, camaraderie served as a necessary foundation because people had to overcome harsh conditions and work cooperatively to survive and build and sustain a community. Centuries later, the growth of capitalism and its emphasis on individualistic progress resulted in the emergence of cheerfulness as the US national ethic, symbolized by the lovely, white-toothed smile. It was considered that in order to be successful in this new, competitive society—to promote the self and increase production levels in the workplace—one must always be able to manage one’s emotions. Otherwise, the individual would fall apart and be disorganized.

But is constant emotion-control necessary, and is it healthy? In my opinion, the expectation to smile and be merry silently destroys our ability to communicate effectively, as well as breeds stress and depression by suppressing the very element that is the key to a healthy psyche: the freedom to express genuine feeling and sentiment.
As previously stated, the smile has historically represented an expression of cordiality, of warmth, of well-being. Shouldn’t these expressions be genuine? If these are the ideal conditions for smiling, then just think how ridiculous and oppressive it is for people to force a smile even when they are terribly sad or anxious, or if they simply don’t feel like smiling. In Europe, people generally don’t smile if they don’t want to, and they definitely do not smile at strangers – least of all the French and Russians. I’ve visited both of those countries, and if my line of sight happened to meet with someone else’s and the automatic smiling reflex popped up on my lips, the other person would glare at me as if I were picking my nose or wore mac-and-cheese for a hat.

Perhaps people who do not try to adapt to a social norm that promotes artificiality of character are healthier, both mentally and physically. According to several studies, in Europe, there are twice as few people who smile randomly at one another. There are also twice as few Europeans who consume prescription drugs for depression and other mental disorders. In addition, fewer Europeans have the need to visit psychiatrists and therapists. Americans, on the other hand, have a huge trend of participating in therapy and of taking antidepressants. In 2003, Delta airlines spent nine million dollars on antidepressants for employees and their dependents (Tyranny of Cheer).

Perhaps the emotional labor of keeping up a cheerful physiognomy takes its toll on people’s abilities to deal with their problems, thereby increasing their risk for depression and stress. Of course, these studies do not prove causation or even strong correlation, but these cultural differences are something to consider.

Another interesting study sheds light on the smiling habits of Americans: Mr. Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, conducted a research experiment in which he analyzed the yearbook smiles of a number of women and grouped them into two different types of smiles: the forced “Pan American” smiles, where only the lip corners are pulled up a bit, showing only the top row of teeth. Then come the Duchenne smiles, in which the bottom teeth are also showing, as well as the appearance of crow’s feet near the eyes, and baggy lower eyelids. Duchenne smiles are considered to be genuine and non-artificial, while Pan American smiles are forced, feigned gestures. Mr. Keltner followed up with those same women decades later and found that those with Duchenne yearbook smiles were generally happier than the women with Pan American yearbook smiles; they were more content in their marriages and displayed a higher quality of overall well-being. This research may point to the idea that fake smiles and their promotion do not result in greater happiness—rather the opposite.

Of course, there exists a field of research supporting the belief that maintaining a positive outlook versus a negative one can indeed be beneficial to one’s mental and physical health. Dr. Brummet, Professor of psychiatry at the Medical Center of Duke University, conducted an eleven-year study that examined 866 adults with heart disease. Results showed that those with a positive outlook on life were 20% more likely to be alive eleven years after the study began than those with a pessimistic outlook.

My goal is not to counter the benefits of a positive outlook. I am not against smiling—I am against the expectation to smile—against forced smiling. I understand that smiling is beneficial to sales and business; smiling promotes business and has very little to do with personal feelings and relationships. I also understand that smiling is addictive: when people around you smile and are happy, you tend to start smiling and happy feelings ensue. But to tell people that they should smile simply because that’s what is expected of them, because that’s what everyone wants to see, is not a valid reason for a person to smile. To spread fake joy into society, to have everyone catch the plastic smiling bug, is just a devious way of conforming everyone to societal pressures and norms, and suppressing people’s genuine responses.

I’d like to be the sole master of my emotions and facial expressions, especially outside of the working environment. I’d like to be able to walk around grumpy or stony-faced if I so pleased, without incurring any of the usual “why don’t you smile” or “why the long face?” remarks from perfect strangers. Freedom from at least that one convention would be nice. Perhaps one day…


Filed under: Prose