Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

Smile Like You Mean It at Work

Is service with a smile something to frown about?

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It's ironic: A job that requires you to put on a happy face all the time may lead to unhappiness. Keeping up the facade is mentally draining and emotionally exhausting, and it's stressful to feel as if you can never be your real self.

Now two new studies suggest that a fake smile at work may make you less healthy and productive as well. But by changing your true feelings to better match your smile, you might be able to protect your heath, get more work done, and go home in a better mood.

Faking It at Work
If you're among the two-thirds of Americans in the service sector, a big part of your job probably involves selling an emotional experience to customers, clients, or patients. Salespeople are supposed to be friendly, attorneys are supposed to be reassuring, and doctors are supposed to be compassionate. When you just aren't really feeling it, you may try putting on an act. However, recent research shows that offering service with a fake smile can take a personal toll.

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  • Emotional effects. A two-week study of city bus drivers, published in the Academy of Management Journal, found that negative emotions tended to increase on days when the drivers faked a good mood.
  • Work performance. A recent analysis of three decades of research on this subject found that faking positive feelings at work was associated with lower employee satisfaction and increased job burnout. In the bus drivers study, feigning positive emotions was associated with work withdrawal - actions such as daydreaming on the job, thinking about quitting, or giving less than 100% at work.
  • Physical effects. For a study published in Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, volunteers spent time in a simulated call center, where they were confronted by a complaining customer. Those who had been told to hide negative emotions had greater increases in blood pressure and heart rate than those told to show their true feelings. In the real world, when stress becomes chronic, it's thought that such physiological changes may damage artery walls and perhaps contribute to heart disease.

Changing Your Mind
If you're feeling the strain, switching to a job that doesn't require putting on a happy face for the public is one solution. But when that isn't an option, another solution is changing your actual feelings so that your smile is more authentic.

This process, called "deep acting" in psychological jargon, can take a couple of forms. One involves redirecting attention. "For example, employees might try to recall a pleasant memory," says Brent Scott, PhD, an associate professor of management at Michigan State University and lead author of the bus drivers study. Or they might take a few moments to focus on something pleasant in their current situation, such as a family photo on their desk, the sunny scene outside their window, or the cute child tagging along with an irate customer.

"Employees might also try to take a different perspective," says Scott. This involves reappraising how they think about the situation, which, in turn, may change how they genuinely feel about it. For example, instead of thinking, "This customer hates me," it may be more accurate to think, "This customer is really upset. But he doesn't even know me, so it's not a personal attack."

Smiling From the Inside Out
Research shows that deep acting strategies may improve your customers' satisfaction, perhaps because customers pick up on subtle clues that your friendliness is more sincere. In Scott's study, the employees' mood also improved when they engaged in deep acting. Potentially, that could decrease job stress and all the negative health consequences that go along with it.

Scott cautions that there may be a limit to how much people should change to fit a job, however. "There is some suggestion in the research that even deep acting, if done too much over long periods of time, can lead to feeling inauthentic - almost like losing one's self-identity," he says. "So it's best to be oneself, but that can't happen all the time, and sometimes deep acting is required."

 

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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