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So Happy I Forgot to Cry

Bad news, girls and boys. Recent scientific discoveries prove that if you pretend to be happy at work, it’s bad for your health. On the other hand, if you’re truly honest about your feelings and cry at work, it’s bad for your career. And if you don’t believe me, ask Brent Scott.

Scott is the assistant professor of management at Michigan State University who conducted the smile research, and I’m sure professor Scott is smiling now since his research results were picked up by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times. Under the headline, “Faking Happiness May Lead to Blues,” Parker-Pope summarizes the experiment, which consisted of tracking “the facial expressions of bus drivers, whose jobs require them to be courteous and endure frequent interactions with other people.”

The conclusion drawn from many miles of scientific observation was that “on days when the smiles were forced, the subjects’ moods deteriorated and they tended to withdraw from work. Trying to suppress negative thoughts, it turns out, may have made these thoughts even more persistent.”

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Why school bus drivers are feeling so negative is beyond me. Compared to jobs like yours, these drivers have it easy. No one is looking over their shoulder, except a 10-year-old. And frankly, I’ve never met a manager who was half as smart, or a third as much fun, as a 10-year-old, especially when you’ve got them sugared-up — the kid, not the manager.

You’ll have to decide whether this research is useful to you. These scientific smiling conclusions may be somewhat less relevant because you haven’t smiled at work since the head of marketing slipped on a tuna sandwich, broke his leg and had to limp around on crutches for two months. You had to sacrifice a perfectly good tuna sandwich just to get an innocent chuckle.

While there may be a psychological cost to faking your way through the workday with a fake smile plastered on your face, crying at work is definitely a career-stopper.

According to a Jenna Goudreau article in Forbes, titled “Crying at Work, a Woman’s Burden,” Kim Elsbach — a professor of management at the University of California, Davis — explains that most crying in the workplace is done by women. And the problem here, of course, is that a woman crying because she is miserable makes men feel uncomfortable.

“Because most boys are firmly taught not to cry, holding back has become a reflex,” professor Elsbach says. “And unfortunately for women, tears at work are almost always perceived with disdain, and the consequences can be harsh.”

Why disdain? One reason is that when women turn on the waterworks, men’s testosterone levels “drop significantly.” This scientific fact comes from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, where scientists “showed just the smell of a woman’s tears caused a dip in testosterone and reduced brain activity in areas associated with sexual arousal.”

So, now we know the real problem with crying at work. If it’s a woman doing the crying, the men in the office will stop thinking of sex, which means their minds will be 99.99 percent blank. Also, they’ll lose their testosterone-driven, Rambo-like passion for achievement, which is probably why the woman was crying in the first place.

My advice is that if you do feel a crying jag coming on, try to get yourself away from your public space and into a personal space where you can “cry you a river” in private. Diving under your desk is a good place for a good cry, as is the restroom or the supply closet. If you’re tempted to run to HR to do your crying, I suggest you change your plan and your route. They’re already so miserable in HR that you won’t find a sympathetic shoulder or a tissue.

While it is dangerous for a woman to cry at work, it is lethal for a man. The one exception, granted for both sexes, is for what professor Elsbach refers to as “a personal loss like death or divorce, and even that has its limits.” So, if the loss of Mr. Bubbles, your pet goldfish, starts the tears flowing, you might want to limit the mourning period. A week or two of sobbing under your desk is perfectly understandable for a woman. For a man, the limit is a brief outburst in the Monday morning status meeting, complete with wrenching cries and beating your little fists against the conference table.

It may not be a fitting memorial, but Mr. Bubbles would understand.

Bob Goldman has been an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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