Is it fair or kind to ask someone who’s depressed to try and smile?

Is this something a supportive friend or even a therapist should do?

Smile Studies

You may have heard that you use fewer muscles to smile than you do to frown, but that isn’t necessarily true–the actual evidence seems hard to pin down. However, what is true is that when you smile, you improve your mood.

Mark Stibich, PhD, a behavior change expert who teaches at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, gives 10 reasons why we should smile as often as possible. Quite a few of them overlap, so we’ll only list some of them here.

Stibich says smiling makes us more attractive and relieves stress. The Association for Psychological Science, “Grin and Bear It! Smiling Facilitates Stress Recovery” research is cited revealing that smiling actual reduces stress and increases one’s ability to get through a stressful experience.

Dr. Stibich mentions that smiling makes us feel better, that it actually increases dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good chemicals in our brains. He says that smiling makes others feel better, too.

A smile is catching, and there is an ancient Jewish teaching that even suggests we have a certain responsibility to help make others feel as pleasant and happy as possible. Greet every person with a pleasant countenance.* Often, it’s simply translated as “greet everyone with a smile.”

Smile Inside & Out

The Hebrew word panim means face, but it shares a root with pnimiyut which means inwardness, because our faces reveal our inner state. It’s also a singular noun which is always given the plural ending (im), which reflects the idea that we have an inner-self, and a self we reveal to the world, via our face. We can toss off any old smile, but we can smile with our eyes, too. When we do, we show that our inner-self is smiling.

More reasons to smile, Stibich says, are that smiling boosts your immune system and even lowers blood pressure. It even makes us look younger.

So, is it cruel to tell someone who’s going through a hard time to “grin and bear it” or to try and smile?

Well, it depends.

Certainly everyone deserves to have their genuine feelings validated, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Telling someone to “put on a happy face” when they’re suffering with depression may be insensitive–but that’s only for a limited amount of time.

For example, in many cases it is a reasonable part of a treatment plan to work on smiling, to actually practice it even if (especially if!) you don’t feel happy inside. Practice smiling at others. If that seems phony, painful, or impossible, then go home and practice smiling in the mirror. Or practice smiling at a pet.

You can listen to music that has made you feel like smiling in the past to encourage yourself to smile, even if it doesn’t feel genuine at first.

Often when we work to change a behavior, and smiling is a behavior, not just an expression of what we’re feeling, that behavior becomes internalized.

Although this research hasn’t been done to the best of my knowledge, I have observed (anecdotally) that sometimes when people smile it triggers a pleasant memory. When our insides match our outsides we’re are able to feel more authentic and even more real.

* From Ethics of the Fathers, Tractate 1:15