The hidden cost of faking happiness

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Have you ever found yourself pretending to be happy, even when you’re not?

I have—more times than I’d like to admit.

We are often told to “Fake until we make it” or to tell ourselves aloud how happy we are in front of a mirror every morning and that one day, not long from now, we’ll begin to believe our own lies.    

The truth is we rarely do. And even if we did, would this be real happiness?

I don’t think so. As Mark Manson put it in his hugely popular, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck

“No truly happy person feels the need to stand in front of a mirror and recite that she’s happy. She just is.”

Worse yet, I’ve come to realize that following this tempting trick has its own hidden costs.

And they’re not small. Let’s get into them. 

1) Anxiety and discomfort 

In my mid-twenties, I moved from a career in finance to one in ESL teaching. One of the first questions that beginner students learn is “How are you?”. Any guesses on what response was taught at most schools?

“I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” 

I am not here to critique ESl teaching material, but this brings up a question: how often do we, competent English speakers, most of us who have a breadth of vocabulary to choose from, simply tell people, or worse yet, ourselves, that we are “good” or “doing well” – when the reality is that it couldn’t be further from the truth?

It’s inauthentic at best, and it has consequences. 

As professor and author Brené Brown so aptly highlights in her work, vulnerability, and authenticity are at the core of true connection and happiness. 

Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers also touched on this. He emphasized that incongruence (the gap between our real self and ideal self) can lead to significant psychological discomfort and anxiety

In other words, faking happiness can lead to an internal conflict that chips away at our well-being over time. Hardly a recipe for happiness. 

For me, recognizing this cost has been a vital step in embracing authenticity and fostering genuine relationships. It’s not just about being true to others; it’s about being true to ourselves.

This insight might not seem groundbreaking. In fact, it could be considered plain old common sense. But realizing its impact on my mental health has been profound.

If you’re still not convinced, however, I’ll leave you with a quote to ponder on this point. 

“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”

Brené Brown

The next one is a big one, and it touches on perhaps the best predictor of happiness that so many of us seem intent on ignoring. 

2) A negative impact on relationships (and, in turn, our happiness)

Faking happiness doesn’t just affect us individually; it also negatively impacts our relationships with others. 

And what is the best predictor of happiness? 

Well, according to Harvard researchers who continue to conduct the longest-ever study on happiness, it’s our relationships. As acknowledged in The Harvard Gazette the study showed that “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives”. 

Does faking contentment aid us in forming close bonds? Of course not. 

As put by a writer at Berkeley Executive Education, “Authentic people are better able to build deeper, more rewarding relationships because they are built on truth and allow for each person to express their genuine selves.”

The point is that when we hide our true emotions, we rob those close to us of the opportunity to truly understand and support us. 

And here’s the real catch: it’s these close relationships that actually help us to be truly happy. 

This realization was a wake-up call for me.

In my personal journey, recognizing and stopping the pretense was not just about being more honest with others; it was about allowing myself to be seen, warts and all.

This shift did not come without its challenges. It made some interactions more complicated. But ultimately, it led to deeper, more meaningful connections with the people in my life.

The cost of faking happiness in our relationships might often go unnoticed, but its impact is significant.

3) The hindrance to personal growth

Have you ever stopped to consider how faking happiness might actually obstruct your personal growth?

I hadn’t until I found myself stuck in a cycle of pretending everything was okay, even when it wasn’t. This act of deception was not only draining, it was also stunting my personal development.

And this isn’t just a personal observation. A 2016 study showed that expressing negative emotions is beneficial for our mental health. Not to mention, many psychologists, like Susan David, advocate acknowledging our true feelings.

Why?

When we fake happiness, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from our emotions. Instead of understanding the root of our feelings and finding ways to address them, we brush them aside.

This realization prompted me to stop pretending and start acknowledging my feelings, no matter how unpleasant. It was challenging and uncomfortable at times, but it led to greater self-understanding and personal growth.

4) The creation of unrealistic expectations

Picture this: You’re always seen as the happy, go-lucky person, the one who’s always upbeat and positive. This is the image you’ve portrayed, and it’s what people expect from you.

Yet, there are days when you’re not feeling quite so sunny. But because that’s not the expectation, you feel compelled to maintain the facade of happiness.

This was my reality. I was caught in a constant cycle of faking happiness to meet the unrealistic expectations I had created for myself and others.

Psychologist Dr. Barbara Held argues that this ‘tyranny of the positive attitude‘ can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure when we can’t live up to this impossible standard all the time.

For me, breaking free from these unrealistic expectations was liberating.

It involved letting go of the need to always appear happy and embracing my emotional range. This shift allowed me to interact with others more authentically and reduced the pressure I felt to constantly maintain an image of unflappable positivity.

5) We make other people feel like they always need to be happy

When we fake happiness, we contribute to the illusion that it’s the norm. 

By doing so, we not only put ourselves under stress to always be upbeat and cheery, but we inadvertently put others under it, too. 

This realization struck a chord with me. I saw how my act of pretending was not only harmful to me but could also negatively impact others.

Breaking this cycle required me to embrace my full spectrum of emotions publicly and to encourage others to do the same. This shift fosters a more inclusive, empathetic society where all emotions are acknowledged and accepted.

The bottom line 

There you have it, folks. 

There’s nothing wrong with looking on the bright side, and I am certainly not condoning that you should be negative. 

But as with everything, too much of anything is a bad thing. Authenticity reigns supreme. 

As always, I hope you found some value in this post. 

Until next time. 

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Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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