Recently, the moral debate concerning plastic surgery was thrust forcibly back into the limelight during the Oscars when formerly attractive actress Kim Novack appeared on stage and shocked the audience using only her face. A visage all-too-apparently disfigured by plastic surgery. Disgusting, awkward, depressing…don’t even begin to describe the spectacle.
While we can readily understand the motivations involved in an elderly actress’ (or actor’s) decision to artificially improve her looks, any benefits the rest of us can expect from undergoing plastic surgery are perhaps less clear. We can safely assume that there are social payoffs if the surgery isn’t botched. Maybe you can hope to become more well-liked by strangers, or you suddenly gain persuasive powers you never had, and where did that pay raise come from? However, many people who elect to have these surgeries are looking for something else. They’re doing it for me, for their own private reasons that have little or nothing to do with any objective rewards they might reap from the transformation. It’s less obvious that plastic surgery will improve these subjective factors, such as self-esteem, or happiness. Thankfully, research provides some answers.
One question we can ask is simply whether physically attractive people tend to be happier than the plainer among us. Based on the findings of one psychological study, the answer to that question appears to be no. Sort of. To get the full picture, we need to consider the differential consequences of other-perceptions and self-perceptions of physical attractiveness. First, perhaps surprisingly, the study did not find a relationship between others’ ratings of a target’s attractiveness and the target’s happiness. In other words, people who are objectively more physically attractive are not more happy, on average. The same study did show, however, that self-perceptions of physical attractiveness do relate strongly and positively to happiness. If this seems perplexing, consider that it’s possible to be biased about how attractive you are—it’s easy to feel more or less attractive than you seem to others. What appears to matter most is those feelings themselves, even if they diverge from reality to some extent.
So, perhaps plastic surgery will help people feel more attractive; if that’s true, it should improve their happiness, though again we are not forced to guess. There is research that directly addresses the question of whether having plastic surgery improves psychological well-being. One recent study revealed benefits across a wide range of outcomes, including anxiety, social phobia, depression, body dysmorphia, goal attainment, life satisfaction, mental and physical health, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. A fairly recent review study found more evidence like this, but also qualified the main idea to some extent by demonstrating that expectations matter—if you have unrealistically high expectations of what the surgery will do for you, you are likely to be disappointed and wind up less happy than you were to begin with. Interestingly, this study also broke down the psychological benefits of plastic surgery by type of procedure. Breast augmentation and reduction were most uniformly associated with positive emotional outcomes—greater social confidence and self-esteem—while rhinoplasty and face lifts presented a more mixed picture. Another side point is that males tend to exhibit greater dissatisfaction overall with these procedures than females.
Everything considered, there seems to be some merit to the idea that going under the knife will improve one’s happiness, at least for a period of time, keeping in mind the exceptions and qualifications enumerated above. It’s even possible that Kim is happy with her situation, whatever it is that’s happening there on the front of her head, so long as she thinks she’s beautiful.
Ted Cascio teaches psychology at The College of New Jersey. He has written at the intersection of psychology and popular culture for Psychology Today, In Mind Magazine, and John Wiley & Sons. Though I can assure you his cat isn't impressed in the least.