A couple of things I liked recently: Ariana Grande’s new album, "thank u, next" and Jordan Peele’s new horror film, "Us". Random, I know, but they’re related. "Us", deals with all the things that can be hidden under a happy exterior, while one of my favorite songs on "thank u, next" is titled “fake smile.”
What seems to be a very common theme among college-aged people is the idea of emotional authenticity.
“To thine own self be true” is a sentiment essential to healing and self-love, even written on the Alcoholics Anonymous chip to emphasize the importance of an honest moral inventory. It is a hard sentiment to honor wholly, though, because it is tough to decide what is an accurate marker of who “thine own self” really is, especially when the way you feel is affected by both cultural social norms and your environment.
At Penn, in my experience, it is not likely that you spend a lot of the weekday, what with classes, clubs, and jobs among other things, around people you’d usually choose to spend time with. When you aren’t busy, it is likely that people you’d hang out with have a commitment anyway. I realized that spending a lot of time alone, coupled with the stress of academics, can foster loneliness even in those who like alone time. This means you might not feel as happy as you might have in high school or on vacation.
In a 2017 study of emotional labor, researchers looked at full-time employees in jobs that explicitly or implicitly required displays of positive emotions toward customers—salespeople, waiters, cashiers. Because it makes sense that employees won’t always be in a positive state, they do things to achieve that required display of happiness. There are two ways to do this, one of which, “deep acting,” is to actually dig up positive emotions from past experiences/memories. The focus of this study, though, is “surface acting,” which is basically just faking it and requires actively suppressing your real emotions.
The moral of the study is to avoid surface acting by all means—it takes an emotional toll and creates dissonance between what you feel and what you display. Pretending to be happy when you aren’t doesn’t only make you into someone else for a moment; it can leave you vulnerable to behaving like someone you don’t want to be.
There is a social expectation that we treat each other in a respectful manner at Penn, so to be clear, I am not equating emotional authenticity to always being completely uncensored and letting emotion overtake common sense and respect for the people around you. There are also studies that say smiling can make you happier. I don’t mean if you’re upset that you should let it overwhelm your demeanor.
Instead, I’m saying that we are all stressed and busy at Penn, for all types of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that no one cares about your well-being. Try to be mindful of when someone asks you how you are and you just say, “Good, you?” Find people whom you don’t have to act around. Journal. Make music. Talk to someone at CAPS. Reach out to people about how you feel. And if smiling makes you feel better, smile.
KALIYAH DORSEY is a College freshman from Pennsauken, N.J., studying English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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