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Just Wear Your Smile: The Gender Politics of Positive Psychology

You’ll have the boys a-lining up single file
If you just wear your smile.

Cass Elliot, “When I Just Wear My Smile” (1969)

As mask mandates eased across the United States, many women bemoaned the inevitable return of one of the more insidious banalities of misogyny: men telling them to smile. COVID-19 masking had offered a kind of consciousness-raising for many women, the absence of the requirement to smile in public making stark their habitual, constant emotional labor. One woman told a reporter for the Daily Beast, “Best thing about the masks is that men can’t tell me to smile when I’m out in public.” Another said she planned to continue wearing masks despite changes to the rules in her community, because “it’s just so nice and freeing to be able to decide whether to smile or not, just based on how I feel personally.”

These women’s comments were reminiscent of remarks made by Women’s Liberation activist Shulamith Firestone, who explained in her foundational 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: “My ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.” Firestone’s use of the term “pleasing” remains machete-sharp, slicing through both sides of the compulsory smile interaction. A woman is “pleasing” to look at because she is smiling, and she is “pleasing” the man because he expects her to. At base, Firestone argues, the woman’s smile “indicates acquiescence of the victim to her own oppression.” And, if a man doesn’t get it—on the subway, at work, in the cereal aisle at the grocery, in class, at a club, walking down the street—he demands it. “You should smile more.” “Come on, lady, smile!” “Lighten up!” “You have Resting Bitch Face.” “Why are you so angry?” “Your clients/coworkers/boss would find you more approachable if you smiled more.” “Smile, bitch!”

Fortunately, our popular culture is finally starting to rally behind the position that men must stop telling women to smile. At the same time, however, a prominent subfield of psychology known as Positive Psychology, which purports to be the science of the good life, continues to insist that people—and especially women—should smile.

In 2001 psychologists LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner published the findings of their study on smiling in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The question the study sought to answer was simple: Was it possible to look at women’s college yearbook photos and from them make predictions about their future happiness? Yes, the Berkeley psychologists concluded, it was. Their predictions hinged on whether the women were smiling. But not just smiling; they had to be giving the camera (and the photographer behind it) an authentic smile—what supermodel Tyra Banks would call a “smize,” a smile that reaches the eyes. This “true” smile, the researchers contended, indicated that the subject was experiencing positive emotions like happiness or joy. And what proved that these smiling women went on to experience lives of true happiness and well-being? In addition to their self-reports, the women hadn’t stayed single beyond the age of twenty-seven and had divorce-free marriages.

This all may seem self-evidently ridiculous, or at least very far down on a list of the world’s current problems, but this study—and the research movement it emerged from—have serious repercussions. Positive Psychology remains a leading school of thought in academic psychology, clinical therapy, management and organizational consulting, and coaching. With its interdisciplinary bedfellow Happiness Studies, Positive Psychology represents a large share of self-help books released every year, a publishing market worth about $10.5 billion in the United States in 2020, which itself represents only a small sliver of the billions generated annually by the global mental wellness industry. Since November 2008, luminaries of Positive Psychology, including its founder Martin E.P. Seligman, have worked with the U.S. Army to implement service-wide resilience training, despite a lack of evidence that the program offers soldiers any benefit. Other initiatives run by the field’s disciples stretch into health care, education, law, policing, human resources, international relief, and design. In short, tens of millions of people around the world are impacted directly by Positive Psychology. It matters, then, that we ask how it gave birth to such a seemingly unscientific idea as a “true” smile, and through that inquiry consider how its patriarchal assumptions of what constitutes “happiness” came to be enshrined in the science of psychology.

Fair warning: like so many stories of misogyny, the tale involves a hot tub.

Positive Psychology’s official history is a Great Man story. It begins in 1998 when University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman gave his inaugural address as the new president of the American Psychological Association, “Building Human Strength: Psychology’s Forgotten Mission.” He argued that since World War II, the field had become too narrowly focused on mental illness and suffering; as well, it had been “sidetracked” by the priorities of research funders, including the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. As president of the APA, he was announcing a new set of priorities “to reorient psychology to its two neglected missions, making normal people stronger and more productive as well as making high human potential actual.” Seligman called the new field to be guided by these concerns “Positive Psychology.”

Read entire article at Boston Review