When Faking Positivity Reduces Stress and When It Backfires

When Should You Fake It, and When Does This Backfire?

Smiling woman on a swing.
Sometimes a fake smile can become a real one. When does "faking it" work well?. Nanihta photography/Getty Images

You may have heard the advice, "fake it until you make it," applied to business or overall self-confidence.  It can also be applied to happiness-inducing, stress-relieving activities like forcing a smile, pushing yourself to be outgoing, or repeating positive affirmations.  But do these activities work or can they backfire?  Here are some research-backed situations when faking it works and examples of when it can do more harm than good.

Fake A Smile?


You may have heard recommendations both ways: plastering on a smile when you feel unhappy can only make you worse, and a fake smile can lead to a real one. You may have even heard of research that backs up both positions.  So, which is it?

Actually, in a way, both are true.  When you smile as a way to repress upset feelings, you can make yourself feel worse. We all sometimes do this when we need to in order to be socially acceptable. And some research actually does suggest that forcing a smile can even help depressed people feel better. But if you always cope with unhappiness by forcing a smile and pretending you're not upset, this can create other problems. It can feel inauthentic and it can be part of a greater pattern of not dealing with your feelings. If you fake a smile so those close to you, those who could offer support, don't know that anything is wrong, this can keep you from getting social support that could make you feel better.  So smile when you need to, but let yourself be real when you can, and process your feelings.  

If, however, you are feeling neutral or just slightly "down," smiling can help. One study asked subjects to fake smiles and measured how they felt after a few minutes of this. Results showed a boost in positive feelings as a result of the smiling; in these cases, the fake smiles tended to lead to real ones.  Researchers believe that this is because the mind and the body communicate. Psychologically, we infer our attitudes by watching our actions as an observer would. Therefore, you can intensify an emotion by physically expressing it.  (Researchers have also found that standing up straighter can actually make you feel more confident.)

Another study had subjects hold a pencil in their teeth to activate the same muscles that are required for smiling. They wanted  to see if the very act of smiling might create positive feelings or if people, when forcing a smile, would think of things that made them happy and those thoughts led to the real smiles.  (This would mean that the boost in positive feelings would be due to the happy thoughts rather than the act of smiling itself.)  Interestingly, even the subjects who were "smiling" because they were holding a pencil in their teeth found themselves feeling more positive as a result.

Just to complicate things, another series of studies found that our beliefs about smiles can also make a difference here. Research from Northwestern University found that those who think of smiles as a reflection of their good mood can find themselves feeling happier when they smile more frequently. However, those who see smiling as a cause of happiness rather than a result of it find that more frequent smiling actually has the opposite effect. The key here is that if you think of your smiles as something that you do because you're in a good mood, smiling more often should make you feel better. If you think of it as something that you're only doing to feel better, you might not get the same positive boost.

If this is true for you, you might want to take a minute or two and focus on the positive things in your life, remember the last really funny thing that happened to you, or otherwise focus on things that make you smile naturally.

The important thing to remember is that real smiles are preferable, even though both types can bring benefits. If you can think of things that can genuinely make you happy as a way to change your outlook and make yourself feel like smiling, that is ideal. But if you can't get yourself to that kind of happy place in seconds, faking a smile is a simple shortcut that most often works.

Aside from the emotional and health benefits of smiling, there are stress management benefits as well. One of the most significant is that, when you wear a positive expression, it can be contagious. Smile and the world smiles back at you, as the saying goes.  Walking around with everyone responding more positively to you can lead to more genuine smiles for you as well.

The Verdict: Fake it—but only under certain conditions!  If you fake a smile to give yourself a boost in positivity, this generally works well if you think of the smile as a reflection of your good mood. If you fake a smile to keep from dealing with your feelings or the things that are making you sad, or if you think of a forced smile only as a trick to make you happy, this can make you feel worse in the long run. And if you can make yourself feel like smiling, that's the best route to take!

Fake an Affirmation?

Hope is a good mantra for stress relief.
Wendy Connett/Moment/Getty Images

Positive affirmations are widely recommended in some self-help circles. In a sense, they are a method of "faking" beliefs about yourself and your life in an attempt to make those beliefs more of a permanent reality.

The recommendations of the early 2000s bestselling book, The Secret, are based, in part, on the effectiveness of positive affirmations.  But affirmations are recommended by many other bestselling self-help books as well and have gained quite a following in recent years.

Affirmations can be likened to personal mantras, and are recommended to be repeated as a way to reprogram one's subconscious mind to replace negative beliefs with more affirming ones, particularly when they are beliefs about one's self.

But do they work? Some people say that those who repeat affirmations over and over are simply fooling themselves and in the long run, they are ineffective or even damaging because they are self-delusional. Are they right?

Interestingly, when it comes to affirmations, the naysayers have a point.  Research has actually shown that positive affirmations can actually backfire in certain situations. More specifically, when people repeat affirmations that they do not truly believe or that are even the opposite of what they truly believe, the subconscious mind rejects these affirmations and actually becomes more resistant to the ideas and more stressed as a result!  So in this way, the wrong affirmations really can do more harm than good.

The key here is that  more damaging affirmations are those that people repeat when they are the opposite of what they really think—or are at least significantly far from their true beliefs. This isn't true for affirmations that repeat what people believe to be true already, or that people believe could be true.  This is an important distinction because affirmations that align with one's true beliefs really do work in strengthening these beliefs and expanding upon them.  But positive affirmations that align with how you really think can have a powerfully positive effect.

An example of an affirmation that would backfire for someone who is dealing with discomfort about their appearance: I am the most beautiful woman in the world.  Because it is so far off from how the woman actually feels about herself, her subconscious mind would put up a fight, and the affirmation would create stress without creating positive change.

A better option would be: I am beautiful enough, or I am beautiful inside and out.  If the woman were attempting a healthier diet and balanced exercise schedule, she may create affirmations to support this, such as I am working toward greater health and beauty every day, or I am getting stronger, I am getting healthier, and eventually, I am strong, I am healthy, I am beautiful.

Here are more examples.

Unrealistic: I am at complete and total inner peace.

More realistic: I am working toward feeling at peace, or I am becoming more peaceful.


Unrealistic: I am strong and nothing hurts me.

More realistic: I am getting stronger and can weather this challenge, or I will overcome these obstacles.

Unrealistic: My life is perfect in every way as it is.

More realistic: My life is becoming better, or I am working toward a better life. (Even better would be to list the ways in which life is becoming better, as separate affirmations.)

These may seem like minor distinctions, but to your subconscious mind, they are significant. And it is important to note that these are only examples. If the affirmations labeled "unrealistic" actually do resonate with you as true, it is fine to use them.  However, if they are far-off or opposite of what you really believe at this point, it is best to soften them to match the best of what you can believe about yourself and your situation in this moment.  

The Verdict: Be careful how you use them! Affirmations that are far from what you actually believe can backfire. Affirmations that capture the best aspects of what you already believe and build on them, or move you in the right direction are key.

Fake Being Outgoing?

Suedhang/ Getty Images

Research shows that extroverts are actually happier than their introverted counterparts. They're also more successful in life. This can feel like bad news for those who naturally tend toward introversion, as the tendency to be more or less extroverted is something that we are born with. However, the good news is that we can shift these tendencies on purpose by consciously acting extroverted in certain situations, and research has backed this up.

In one study, researchers asked introverts and extroverts alike to act extroverted, and found that introverts and extroverts alike experienced a boost in happiness.  In the context of this research, "acting extroverted" means acting confident and outgoing in a social situation that lasts around an hour.  This is distinct from pushing yourself to change your full nature—introverts need more "down time" after social interactions, for example, and it would be exhausting for an introvert not to allow for this.  However, if you are more introverted, you may benefit from acting more confident and outgoing in certain social situations, not only because you will likely connect with more people and expand your social resources, but because you will have a good time, boost your happiness, and in turn minimize your stress levels in the process

If this sounds unrealistic to you, I'll point you to another interesting study that shows you're not alone in this idea.  This research asked introverts to predict how happy they would feel by acting extroverted, and they consistently underestimated how good it would feel to act more extroverted than they felt.  This may be part of why the more reserved among us have a difficult time coming out of their shells—not only does it take effort, but they're not sure that the reward is worth that effort.  Rest assured, if you give it a try, you will likely be glad you did. This is just one effective way to relieve stress if you're an introvert.

The Verdict: Fake it!  Behaving like an extrovert in certain social situations can help both introverts and extroverts feel happier. 

The Bottom Line

Usually the phrase "fake it until you make it" can apply to being in a good mood.  There are certain conditions where your subconscious mind knows you're faking it and it won't be fooled.  However, if you can move toward feeling happier and less stressed with an extra smile when you may not have thought of smiling, a repetition of a positive thought that you actually believe, or an internal push toward friendlier behavior, do it!  If this feels too fake for you and you start to feel worse, try another positivity-boosting activity instead.


A. Koriat, H. Ma'ayan, R. Nussinson. The intricate relationships between monitoring and control in metacognition: Lessons for the cause-and-effect relation between subjective experience and behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135 (2006), pp. 36–69.

Labroo, Aparna; Mukhopadhyay, Anirban; Dong, Ping.  Not always the best medicine: Why frequent smiling can reduce wellbeing.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, July 2014 53:156-162.

Wenyi Lin; Jing, Hu; Yanfei, Gong.  Is it helpful for individuals with minor depression to keep smling? An event-related potential analysis. Social Behavior & Personality: an international journal 2015, Vol. 43 Issue 3, p383 14p.

Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science,20, 860–866.

Zelenski, John M.; Whelan, Deanna C.; Nealis, Logan J.; Besner, Christina M.; Santoro, Maya S.; Wynn, Jessica E.  Personality and affective forecasting: Trait introverts underpredict the hedonic benefits of acting extraverted. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 104(6), June, 2013 pp.

Continue Reading