The cost of putting on a smile at work II - what to do

The cost of putting on a smile at work II – what to do


In my last post The cost of putting on a smile at work I shared some research that has just been published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that shows that people who suppress negative emotions and amplify positive emotions tend to make things worse, specifically:

  1. Suppressing negative emotions impairs our working memory of information presented at the time,
  2. Makes us feel worse, and
  3. It significantly increases our heart rate and stress levels.

So what can you do?

You can’t just allow your emotions to splurge everywhere if you are feeling angry with someone at work for example so what are you meant to do?


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This is what the latest research shows:

  1. Finding someone to ‘vent’ to or find a punch bag or pillow and hit it. Both of these are popular ideas, however studies carried out at Iowa State University in in 1999 and 2002 found that these strategies known as rumination strategies actually increased the negative emotions rather than decreased them and prolonged the feelings. In 2008 researchers from the University of Washington’s Department of Psychology ran a series of experiments which showed that expressing an negative emotion (called expressive suppression) is actually worse than doing nothing. A number of talking therapies aimed at catharsis or ‘getting it all out’ , it appears amplify and prolong the stress in the long term.
  2. Just staying calm. Studies have found that this is the same as suppression and a number of studies have shown that this increases the level of stress and negative feeling an individual feels.
  3. Put your head down and focus on something else. These are distraction techniques and a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University and Lund University in Sweden in 2011 shows that whilst distraction techniques work initially the effects don’t last. Not only that but there is a rebound effect with distraction techniques which bring back either the original negative emotion or a stronger negative reaction later.
  4. Look at the situation from another angle. For example think about how important the situation will be in two hundred years time, or see the situation from someone else’s view who would find it funny for example. These are called cognitive reappraisal techniques and numerous studies over the last ten years have shown that cognitive reappraisal to be the most effective for dealing with negative emotions. A good reappraisal of the situation, especially if it is humorous and not focussed on another negative emotion like a joke at someone else’s expense for example, not only dissipates the feelings but has long term beneficial effects.

Cognitive reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal is an emotion regulation technique that is considered to be the gold standard these days. It changes the trajectory of the emotion by changing its meaning. There are two parts to cognitive reappraisal:

  1. Identification and recognition of one’s negative response (emotional intelligence)
  2. The ability to reinterpret the situation or see it from a different perspective that has a more positive emotional impact.

This enables the person to reduce the negative emotion or even replace it with a positive emotion.

So rather than just putting on a smile and surpassing your emotions at work, find a different way to look at it that reduces or transforms the emotion into a positive one. I use a number of different cognitive reappraisal techniques with coaching clients, and they work amazingly well and over the long term. This ability to cognitively reappraise something is closely connected to cognitive flexibility and adaptability.


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Buhle, J. T., Silvers, J. A., Wager, T. D., Lopez, R., Onyemekwu, C., Kober, H., … & Ochsner, K. N. (2014). Cognitive reappraisal of emotion: a meta-analysis of human neuroimaging studies. Cerebral Cortex, 24(11), 2981-2990.

Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 367.

Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.

Le, B. M., & Impett, E. A. (2016). The Costs of Suppressing Negative Emotions and Amplifying Positive Emotions During Parental Caregiving. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 42(3), 323.

Moore, S. A., Zoellner, L. A., & Mollenholt, N. (2008). Are expressive suppression and cognitive reappraisal associated with stress-related symptoms?. Behaviour research and therapy, 46(9), 993-1000.

Ray, R. D., Ochsner, K. N., Cooper, J. C., Robertson, E. R., Gabrieli, J. D., & Gross, J. J. (2005). Individual differences in trait rumination and the neural systems supporting cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 5(2), 156-168.

Thiruchselvam, R., Blechert, J., Sheppes, G., Rydstrom, A., & Gross, J. J. (2011). The temporal dynamics of emotion regulation: an EEG study of distraction and reappraisal. Biological psychology, 87(1), 84-92.

Disclaimer: This is a research review, expert interpretation and briefing. As such it contains other studies, expert comment and practitioner advice. It is not a copy of the original study – which is referenced. The original study should be consulted and referenced in all cases. This research briefing is for informational and educational purposes only. We do not accept any liability for the use to which this review and briefing is put or for it or the research accuracy, reliability or validity. This briefing as an original work in its own right and is copyright © Oxford Review Enterprises Ltd 2016-2019. Any use made of this briefing is entirely at your own risk.

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