It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It’s what you think about it. — Dale Carnegie
As many have come to find, being locked inside their home is not very enjoyable. In fact, researchers have documented how the current quarantine has contributed to noticeable rises in anxiety, depression, and a host of other negative psychological effects.
One of the worst things about unhappiness, too, is that it can be self-reinforcing: because you’re unhappy, you don’t engage in things that could make you happy, so you become even more unhappy.
So, what can we do to help unhappy people – maybe yourself included – actually engage in activities that would make them happier?
Although unhappy people are motivated to reduce their feelings of unhappiness, it can be difficult to get them (or yourself) to do so. For example, sometimes sad people don’t want to engage in enjoyable activities because they believe it will invalidate how they are currently feeling.
However, one of the primary reasons that people don’t engage in tasks to make them happier is because they believe those tasks will in fact not make them happier. And one of the reasons they think this is because it is literally harder to smile in the present moment.
That’s right, some fascinating new research by Dr.’s Hao Shen, Aparna Labroo, and Robert Wyer show that because it takes more effort to smile when you’re currently unhappy, you think you will find future enjoyable tasks unenjoyable.
Let’s break that finding down.
FROM THE LIPS TO THE BRAIN
According to the facial feedback hypothesis, how you activate the muscles in your mouth can have an influence on how you’re feeling psychologically. For example, when participants were asked to hold a pen between their teeth (which activates the “smiling muscles”), they reported being happier than participants who were asked to hold a pen between their lips (which activates the “frowning muscles”).
Although the effect of activating these facial muscles on your mood can be relatively small, they have been shown in a number of different ways. That is, because our minds have such a strong association between the activation of these muscles (smiles vs. frowning), triggering them alone can be enough to cue the associated mental state.
In fact, these “mind-body” associations can be so strong that it can actually be difficult to even imagine doing a task that conflicts with how you’re currently feeling. For example, if people are wearing (vs. not wearing) a heavy backpack, they imagine that a long walk in the future will be more difficult.
With this in mind, let’s return to the original aim of today’s post.
In one study by Dr. Shen and colleagues, participants first watched either a sad video (a documentary about a devastating earthquake) or a neutral video. Next, participants were provided the lyrics to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and were asked to imagine singing it.
While they did this, the researchers secretly videotaped them and later counted the number of times they smiled while they imagined singing it. From this, they found that people in the sad (vs. neutral) video condition smiled less while they imagined singing it, and this was one of the key reasons that participants reported that singing the song would not make them very happy!
In other studies by this research team, they found the same effect when imagining yourself going to a bar, attending a party with friends, and reading a book at a coffee shop. For all the activities, when participants were put in a negative (vs. positive) mood, they found it more difficult to smile. And because they found it more difficult to smile now, they assumed those tasks would be less enjoyable later.
PUTTING ON A GRIN
So, with this newfound knowledge, what can you do when you’re unhappy in order to motivate yourself to engage in enjoyable tasks? Well, for those concrete pointers on how to improve your and others’ lives, you’ll just have to check out today’s Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder section below 😉
Psych•o•philosophy to Ponder: One of the greatest things about better understanding our psychology is to use that knowledge to improve your and others’ lives. So, when reading these posts, if you ever think there’s something particularly valuable in them for a friend or colleague, I encourage you to pass them along. I mean, who doesn’t appreciate a fun and insightful tip on how to improve their life? But okay, with that out of the way, here are some tips for motivating yourself to do enjoyable tasks when you’re unhappy:
- First, it’s important to recognize that it is your current difficulty smiling that is biasing your future predictions of how enjoyable a task will be. And in the research I described earlier, when participants recognized that they were “misattributing” the difficulty of smiling now to the difficulty of smiling in the future, the effect went away.
- Second, the researchers also found a big difference when participants imagined engaging in a task versus when they imagined the consequences of that task. That is, when participants were asked to focus on the consequences of feeling happy (vs. the engaging in the activity itself), the effect from the difficulty of smiling went away.
- Third, if you really can’t get yourself out of an unhappy mood, imagining unpleasant tasks (e.g., cleaning the toilet) can actually seem more enjoyable. That is, when the researchers had participants in a negative (vs. positive) mood imagine listening to an unpleasant song, they rated that unpleasant song more positively. So, if you have a bad mood you can’t shake, imagine yourself vacuuming the house and it might seem more appealing than it typically does!
- Fourth, if all else fails, you can do what I did during quarantine and propose to the love of your life 🙂
Coles, N. A., Larsen, J. T., & Lench, H. C. (2019). A meta-analysis of the facial feedback literature: Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable. Psychological bulletin.
Shen, H., Labroo, A., & Wyer Jr, R. S. (2020). So difficult to smile: Why unhappy people avoid enjoyable activities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.