Psychologist reveals unpleasant side-effect of pretending to be happy at work

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Helen Booth
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Here’s why psychologists now believe now believe that faking happiness could cause more harm than good

When we feel unhappy – perhaps with a frustrating situation at work, or because of certain things we may feel we’re missing out on – we often hear the advice to ‘look on the bright side’. For the most part, it seems sensible not to dwell on the things that are bringing us down, and instead focus on all the good that we have in our lives.

Similarly, if there’s a personality trait we wish to attain (increased confidence or better leadership skills, for example), we’re often told that the key to success is ‘faking it until you make it’ – ie. acting as if you embody that trait already, with the goal being that you you’ll soon find it comes naturally.

But it turns out there is one emotion where faking it could cause damage – and that’s happiness.

According to Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of the book Emotional Agility, focusing solely on your levels of happiness and ignoring your negative emotions can backfire, and instead make you feel worse.

Instead, David suggests employing a strategy for increasing happiness that involves actively paying attention to the parts of our lives that make us unhappy – if only so that we can learn from this what we might need to change in our lives.

Speaking to Shana Lebowitz of Business Insider UK, David explained: “When we have a particular goal around happiness, what it can lead us to doing is to marking every disappointment, every setback, every concern as being proof that we’re not happy enough or almost proof that we’ve failed in our attempt to be happy. And it’s just not a realistic way of living.”

It’s better, David argues, to use a strategy which she calls “showing up” to your emotions. By acknowledging how you truly feel – even if you are experiencing negative emotions – you will be in a better position to recognise the true roots of those unpleasant feelings, and make the necessary changes in your life to shake off those troubles once and for all.

David uses the key example of negative emotions in the workplace, and suggests that exploring exactly why you feel unhappy – perhaps because you have been overlooked for a promotion, or not received due credit for a project you worked hard on – can lead you to a deeper connection with your own values, and give you a clue as to which of those might be worth fighting for. That realisation could lead to an honest conversation with your boss about your career expectations, or perhaps even give you the push you need to find a job in which you can feel more fulfilled.

“What happens when we focus too much on being happy is we actually push aside critical information that helps us to learn and adapt in our lives,” says David. “In a weird way, acceptance is a precursor to change.”

So next time you feel frustrated or unhappy, instead of hiding that feeling behind a fake smile, try recognising the reasons behind that emotion and working on practical avenues for change. That simple strategy – instead of faking a better mood – could be the trick that actually makes you feel better.

Images: Getty