What’s behind the fake smile?

Author: Kate Cross

Inside the world of smiling depression


Picture this: A young woman sits cross-legged on the floor, grinning at a puppy. She appears jubilant, but don't be fooled. Inside she’s miserable.


Published on social media, this genuine photograph was part of a Women’s Health magazine survey examining the discrepancy between how women looked and how they felt in photos. Women were asked to honestly recaption their seemingly happy pics and the results were eye-opening.


“Sometimes it's the little things that bring the most joy,” was the dog-lovers original caption, according to Women’s Health.


And the updated one? “I wish I had half of this puppy's joy. Earlier today I was driving and looking for objects to crash into. My life feels so overwhelming that I just can't deal.”


An alarming paradox


University of Cambridge mental health researcher Olivia Remes says the Women’s Health survey did a good job of capturing the essence of an under-recognised phenomenon – ‘smiling depression’.


Although not an official psychiatric term, the condition – in which depressive symptoms are masked by a happy exterior – is, according to some experts, entirely possible.


“A significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition … And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide,” wrote Dr Remes in The Conversation.

In an email, she says the official or recognised condition that most closely resembles smiling depression is ‘atypical depression’.  


Unfortunately, despite the Women’s Health survey occurring back in 2017, Dr Remes now says still “more awareness of this condition is needed”.


Spotting the signs


So, how do you recognise the illness when it is, by definition, very well masked? 


“Simply, with some difficulty!” says Registered Psychologist Patrea O'Donoghue.


“Like many things, it will rely on the person acknowledging within themselves that something isn’t quite as bright and rosy as things seem on the surface, and being willing to … seek support,” she says.


Dr Remes says signs can include “feeling an increase in your appetite, a need to sleep for longer than usual, feeling like your arms and legs are very heavy, and being very sensitive to rejection or criticism”.


Sufferers “are able to go through their day-to-day lives and carry out their tasks, even though inside they might be feeling a deep sense of emptiness and hopelessness”, she adds.

The social media smile


Unfortunately, our penchant to post can compound the problem of smiling depression.


Says Dr Remes: “When we see other people looking flawless and posting about their perfect jobs and partners, this can get you down and make you feel like you don't have enough.”


But she adds: Many “social media influencers can be suffering from depression themselves, but you might never know it because in general, the things people post about … are only the highlight reels of their lives”. 


“That’s why it's never a good idea to assume that just because someone looks put-together and is smiling in pictures, they are not suffering inside.”


Getting help


Sadly, Dr Remes says those with smiling depression mightn’t disclose their condition out of shame or guilt. “Oftentimes, people don't think it is a problem,” she adds.


But Ms O'Donoghue says that “‘keep[ing] up with the Joneses’ might mean keeping up appearances to the detriment of one’s own wellbeing and integrity”.


Anything that impairs a person's normal functioning, she says, requires intervention, and “the more significant the impairment, the more intervention is required”. 


So, if this article has stirred troubling feelings or you or someone you know is smiling through untreated depressive symptoms, consult an appropriate health professional.




© 2020. All rights reserved.  |  Last updated: 15 • 02 • 2021