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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Grin and Bear It? Not Always

Two studies by George Bonanno, TC Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, confirm that positive emotion and its expression are both signs of resilience and successful coping with adverse life events. But the studies—one involving observations over time of Columbia University freshmen who arrived in New York on the eve of 9/11 and the other involving interviews with survivors of childhood sexual abuse—also reveal some important caveats. First, the emotion must be genuine.

“Genuine smiling involves the muscles around the eyes and can be reliably distinguished from polite or purposeful smiling,” Bonanno explains.

And laughing in the face of adversity—specifically while discussing childhood sexual abuse—was actually a predictor of less successful social adjustment, despite a strong link between the subjects of that study, whose facial expressions were positive, and general emotional health and social adjustment.

“Sexual abuse makes people profoundly uncomfortable, even in the most enlightened society,” Bonanno says. “It is confusing when someone tells you that they have been abused, and they are laughing and smiling.” As a result, he says, these subjects may have difficulty regulating themselves in social situations, which could contribute to the problems they report about adjusting over the long term.

Bonanno conducted the study on smiling with Anthony Papa, a TC graduate now at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the study of survivors of sexual abuse with Deniz Colak, a former TC student who is now in private practice. Both studies appeared in the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion.

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