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How "Fake It 'Till You Make It" Really Is a Thing

Acting as if you are happy, even if you don’t feel it, will improve your mood.

Ava Motive/Pexels
Source: Ava Motive/Pexels

The other night, I came home from work and sat there crying. Well, not crying exactly, but tears were falling from my mad, staring eyes and rolling down my face. The next night, the same thing happened. And the night after that, and the night after that, and so on.

Tears even seeped out from behind my closed eyelids as I lay in bed at night. As well as the tears, I also felt very, very down.

“Am I sad?” I wondered, all alone in the dark. I concluded that I must be. “But why am I so sad?” I asked myself.

And then I began to worry about what the sadness I felt might represent. Perhaps I was becoming very depressed, I thought. Or maybe the year-long lockdown was somehow releasing some long-buried and hitherto unrecognized past trauma. Maybe I’m not dealing with this whole pandemic situation as well as I thought, I pondered. And then I thought that being a psychotherapist, maybe it was time to go and see someone like me.

About a week later, I went for my annual eye check. “Your eyes are exhausted,” the optician said. “And really, incredibly dry. How much time do you spend staring at a computer screen?”

My answer horrified her.

We all know that staring at screens for any length of time is not good for you, but since the lockdown, my entire working life has been conducted either on Zoom or on Skype. It has been that way since March of last year. And when I am not on Zoom or Skype, I am typing things up in a Word document. And when I’m not doing that, I am either replying to emails and texts or, when I’m not doing that, I’m doing work-related things on social media.

No wonder, then, that I had developed a thousand-foot stare and a semi-permanent headache.

The optician recommended eye drops, regular breaks, deliberate blinking, and setting the alarm on my smartphone to go "beep" every 20 minutes. When it did that, I was to stare off into the middle distance for 20 seconds or so to recalibrate my eyes.

After just a few days of the above, the tears stopped, the mad staring abated, and the sadness soon drifted away, which reminded me of something I teach to clients in one of my therapy groups: namely that your mood can be altered by your physiology or even your behavior.

This might sound odd, as convention dictates that when you are happy, you smile and laugh, and when you are sad, you frown and cry. However, it turns out that the relationship between your emotions and your behavior is a little more reciprocal than that. This means that if you force a smile when you are feeling down, you will lift your mood, and alternatively, if you frown when you are happy, you will feel down.

Your mind actively monitors your behavior to determine your mood. And so, if you are feeling sad, but you force a smile, your mind will conclude that you can’t be that sad after all and will order the release of more happy hormones.

The philosopher William James was one of the first people to cotton on to this little quirk. In fact, it was he who said, “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.”

So, if you want to feel more cheerful than you currently do, smile more, and speak and act more cheerful than you are. Your mood will soon lift. Do this often enough, and you will no longer be acting as if you are cheerful—you will be cheerful. You will have created good cheer simply by acting as if you are indeed a cheerful person.

Charles Darwin also noted that your facial expressions directly affect your emotional experience. The work of James and Darwin in this area later solidified under what is known as the facial feedback hypothesis.

Psychologists have studied this hypothesis in great depth and in a variety of ways, with various experiments involving metal apparatus, fake electrodes, and more. One famous study found you could lift your mood simply by sticking a pen between your teeth, thereby forcing a slight smile. The study also found that if you stuck the pen between your lips, forcing a slight frown, your mood would soon dip. 1

But this phenomenon isn’t just related to our facial expressions. The way we move, say slow and languid as opposed to brisk and energized, will similarly affect our moods.

No matter how you feel on the inside, walking into a room with your shoulders slumped, your head bowed, and your voice slow and low will not only make you feel down but will also have a negative effect on the people in the room. This will, in turn, reinforce your negative feelings. However, walking into the same room with shoulders and head held high and uttering a cheery “Hello” as you enter will make you feel happy. The occupants of the room will respond in kind, and that will reinforce your positive mood.

So, the next time you walk into a room, if you are feeling nervous, smile, project a light and cheery voice, and act as if you are a happy, positive person, even if you don’t feel one on the inside. Fake it, and then fake it some more. Keep faking it until you make it. Eventually, you won’t be acting as if you are a confident person; you will be a confident person.

In the meantime, when I get home at the end of the day, I’m going to dim the lights, close my eyes, and smile to myself. I’ll also keep using those eye drops.


1. Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54, 768–777.1

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