Why, when we’re distressed, do we sometimes smile?

You might have found yourself doing it: smiling when really you’re upset or distressed. Why do we do it? It’s a question that has divided psychologists. Is it to camouflage our true feelings from others? Or is it because smiling comforts us and protects us from our distress?

Matthew Ansfield of Lawrence University in America believes his new findings argue strongly in favour of the latter explanation. He videoed 80 men and 80 women while they watched disgusting videos, either alone or in the company of someone else. The more disgusting the video, the more distressed the participants said they felt and the more they tended to smile. Moreover, the more they smiled during the video, the less distressed they reported feeling after the video had finished – consistent with the idea that smiling during the video had shielded them from its distressing effect.

Of course this doesn’t rule out the idea that the participants may also have been smiling to hide their disgust from others – to appear macho or stoical, perhaps. Indeed, the participants smiled more when they viewed the video with someone else compared with when they viewed it alone. However, Ansfield believes this is because a reluctance to reveal their emotions in the company of others actually made watching the disgusting videos even more distressing, thus providing an even greater need to find comfort in a smile. Consistent with this, those participants, especially the men, who reported feeling more uncomfortable and self-conscious during the disgust video also tended to be the ones who smiled more.

Finally, Anfield argues, if we smile when distressed for social reasons – to hide our negative emotions from others – then how come the participants who smiled during the disgusting videos, were judged less likeable, and deemed to have responded inappropriately, by other participants who saw footage of them? This suggests it wouldn’t make sense for us to smile when distressed for social reasons.

Ansfield, M.E. (2007). Smiling when distressed: When a smile is a frown turned upside down. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 763-775.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

7 thoughts on “Why, when we’re distressed, do we sometimes smile?”

  1. Interesting research! I have a client (female offender) who laughs everytime she is in court and we were trying to work out why she does it. She does not find the situation funny but cannot help herself laughing in the face of the judge. I’m thinking that your theory of self-protection in the face of a distressing situation and outcome (her sentence) may be precisely the point.

  2. I often find that I laugh or smile when confronted with something serious. I wondered if smiling was an attempt to comfort other people that were around me.

  3. is the fact that we can’t stop laughing when we desperately need to, in any way related to it? For example my friends and I were laughing at the professor while he was giving his lecture but it wasn’t so bad till he started staring at us, at that moment we just couldn’t stop anymore, we were fired that day naturally, especially that we had nothing to say when he questioned us about “why” we were laughing so hard!

  4. I see that this is an old article, but maybe someone will still see this. I think that if your theory is correct, it's at most just part of the answer. Dan Dennett talks a little about humor in his TED talk, Sweet, Sexy, Cute, Funny, (or something like that) and touches on the roots of laughter being a response to the discovery that a perceived threat is not actually a danger. For instance, if our primate ancestors heard the warning call for a snake but found that it was actually a stick, they might have a response similar to laughter. I'm theorizing that when we're in a distressing situation (and certainly in this case) we're usually not in actual danger. Even though we don't find the situation funny, perhaps our smiles are caused by the same neurological processes.
    By the way, I ran the search that led me to this article because last night I was talking with my friend about a feature of our culture that is particularly upsetting to us. While we were talking about how unpleasant this was I saw that we were both smiling. In this situation, while we were distressed, we were not in any sort of danger.
    That smiling could be a way of reducing the stress of a stressful situation may be spot on, I think a complete understanding of the phenomenon will probably come from studying what humor is and where it began in our evolution.

  5. I often laugh even when i'm having a stressful day and i see an interesting tweet,it puts me in the mood and makes me feel better.Even in the worst times i know i have a few friends i can count with,they make my days brighter.

  6. You might need medication for this. Particularly if you continue to lose jobs because of inappropriate emotional expression. Jim Carrey, who has made quite a lucrative living from laughing at inappropriate times, has bipolar. I guess you could leave your condition unmedicated and be a famous comedian! Something to think about.

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