Be grateful, but stay away from the Permagrin

In the NYTimes, the estimable Arthur Brooks — the rare research-oriented conservative writer — makes a case for expressing gratitude this season, even if we do not feel it.

This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional “authenticity” that holds you back from your bliss. As for me, I am taking my own advice and updating my gratitude list. It includes my family, faith, friends and work. But also the dappled complexion of my bread-packed bird. And it includes you, for reading this column.

That’s the conclusion of the column. Does that mean that inauthenticity is central to the conservative movement, if the President and thought leader of the American Enterprise Institute is calling for more of it?

Weird thought. Sorry. Anyhow.

Here’s another angle on a similar question. According to a wonderful story in Marketplace called Don’t Worry Be Happy or Else You’re Fired, the forced cheer one sees in retail sales has an emotional cost.

Cara O’Regan’s former job will probably sound pretty familiar to a lot of people. “We were encouraged to be positive and put a positive spin on things whenever possible,” she said.  O’Regan worked in retail sales. [edit] She faked a positive attitude to do her job. More accurately, faking it was her job. “You know, always with a smile on your face — a lot of clapping involved,” she said. “Clapping for the customers, clapping for our co-workers — any excuse to applaud anyone.”

There’s a term for this kind of faking it: emotional labor.

“Emotional labor,” according to Alicia Grandey, professor of industrial organizational psychology at Penn State University, “is a type of work where instead of physical labor where you’re using your muscles to perform the work, you’re using your emotions to perform the work.”

What’s the difference between these two states of inauthenticity? In one case the inauthenticity is bought and paid for, in the other it’s chosen.

Yet the first is said to make for bliss, and the second for disease.

Grandey has done research suggesting faking happiness all day long is emotionally taxing. Faking it, she argues, creates a sense of dissonance between internal and external states over long periods of time “and that’s been shown to create physical tension which can build up and create health issues, and over time result in job burnout.”

Brooks quotes neuroscience, which is a much weaker evidence than it might appear, while Grandey’s research looks at bodily questions through a social science lens.

Neither story uses the wonderful word I have often heard attached to “emotional labor” — the Permagrin (TM). Maybe it’s time for scientists to look at the question through that lens.


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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