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Smile - But Maybe Not When Your Heart Is Breaking

"Smile and the whole world smiles with you," the saying goes-'"to which George Bonanno might add a less catchy corollary:"Depending on your sincerity and what you're smiling about."

New research by TC's George Bonanno parses the nuances of positive emotion in the face of trauma

"Smile and the whole world smiles with you," the saying goes-to which George Bonanno might add a less catchy corollary: "Depending on your sincerity and what you're smiling about."

Bonanno, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, and his colleagues have spent a lot of time watching people smile, and in some cases exploring how the world responds. In two recent studies, Smiling in the Face of Adversity: The interpersonal and intrapersonal functions of smiling and Context Matters: The benefits and costs of expressing positive emotion among survivors of childhood sexual abuse-both of which will be published in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion in early 2008-Bonanno upholds some time-honored beliefs about positive emotions, while shattering a few others.

Certainly it is true that, as is widely believed, both positive emotion and the expression of positive emotion are signs of resilience and successful coping with adverse life events. Laughter has been shown to undo negative emotion, bringing one's heart rate down and-because it helps others to feel better-potentially increasing one's social network.

Bonanno substantiates those findings in his Smiling in the Face of Adversity study, in which he tracked Columbia University freshmen who arrived in New York City just in time for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in order to assess their psychological adjustment over a two-year period. Working with Anthony Papa, a TC graduate now at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Boston, Bonanno measured the distress levels of the participants just after the attacks and again two years later. In the interim, the students met with interviewers and were asked to describe their recent experiences in an open-ended monologue. The researchers analyzed the smiles that occurred spontaneously during those monologues to quantify the impact of facial expressions in what they called the "undoing of negative emotion" in the students.

Subsequently, the students were shown both happy films and sad films. Smiling or laughter by the students in response to happy films was not predictive of better mental health. But the ability to smile or laugh after watching a sad film did predict that students had better social networks and better emotional and mental adjustment than those who did not laugh or smile after seeing the sad films.

So far, no surprises. But there are some caveats to the benefits of positive emotion. One is that the emotion must be genuine, something that can be determined by assessing the genuineness of facial expression. Bonanno's recent studies include analysis of what he calls "genuine smiling"-also known as Duchenne and non-Duchenne expressions. "Genuine smiling involves the muscles around the eyes and can be reliably distinguished from polite or purposeful smiling, which does not involve contraction of the muscles around the eyes," he explains.

A second, less obvious caveat is that there may well be social costs to laughing and smiling in the face of highly stigmatizing events like sexual abuse.

In his Context Matters study, Bonanno and Deniz Colak, then a TC student and now in private practice, looked at the social adjustment of late adolescent girls and young adult women who were survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). (In light of the transitional effect of emerging adulthood on physical stature and social skills, the way sexually abused women express their emotions could be more significant at this time in their lives than when they were younger.) About half of the women had known histories of CSA. All were asked by an interviewer to describe the most distressing event or series of events they had ever experienced, with no mention made about CSA. In fact, interviewers did not know which participants had a history of CSA. Once the interviews were complete, participants were divided into three categories: one group of CSA survivors who voluntarily talked about past abuse experiences, one group of CSA survivors who disclosed an event unrelated to their abuse, and a third group of women who had never been victims of CSA.

Bonanno and his colleagues studied the positive emotions expressed by all the young women in the study, and found that, yes, in general, the more positive facial expression they showed, the better off they were and the better social adjustment they exhibited two years later. Indeed, the more the CSA victims laughed and smiled, the better adjustment they exhibited over time. But-and this was the key-that was not the finding if they laughed and smiled while disclosing their abuse. In fact, genuine laughter and smiling by women while talking about their CSA experiences turned out to predict worse social adjustment over time.

"We are not really sure why this is," Bonanno says. "Sexual abuse makes people profoundly uncomfortable, even in the most enlightened society. It is confusing when someone tells you they have been abused and they are laughing and smiling." As a result, he says, these girls may have difficulty regulating themselves socially, which could contribute to the problems they report about adjusting to social situations over the long term.

Questionnaires given to the women at the end of the study measured their social competence levels and how popular they felt they were among their social contacts. The girls who exhibited genuine smiling and laughter while disclosing abuse responded that they believed they had fewer friends and were less popular. Out of all the participants, those women also reported the most withdrawal from social activities.

"The point of the study is that it is not always good to feel good or to show that you do," Bonanno says. A related, as-yet-unpublished study that he worked on involved showing videotapes of people laughing and smiling to participants who were told that the people on the video were bereaved. The participants said that they felt good watching these people laugh and smile in spite of their loss. That response changed when the participants were told that the smiling people in the tapes had lost a child. The participants in that study said they were very uncomfortable to see a bereaved parent showing such positive emotion.

Published Friday, Nov. 16, 2007