So Difficult to Smile: Why Unhappy People Avoid Enjoyable Activities

Hao Shen*, Aparna Labroo, Robert S. Wyer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Engaging in an enjoyable activity is often effective in reducing or eliminating a negative mood. However, imagining this activity before deciding whether to perform it can decrease unhappy people's willingness to engage in it. The facial expression that accompanies a negative mood (and the muscles activated by the expression) can conflict with the expression that is elicited by imagining the performance of an enjoyable activity, evoking subjective feelings of difficulty of imagining it. Unhappy people misattribute these feelings of difficulty to the enjoyable activity itself, decreasing their desire to engage in the activity. The effects of metacognitive difficulty are eliminated when (a) unhappy people attribute difficulty to something other than the enjoyable activity and (b) focus their attention on the outcome of the activity rather than the process of engaging in it. Moreover, when an irrelevant factor activates smile-related features while performing the activity, the experience of difficulty is attenuated and its effect on aversion to the activity is not apparent. In contrast, unhappy people also find it easy to imagine an unenjoyable activity and consequently evaluate it more favorably after imagining it. Seven studies demonstrated the role of these metacognitive experiences and their implications for research on affect regulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
StateAccepted/In press - 2020


  • Enjoyable activities
  • Mental simulation
  • Metacognition
  • Mood regulation
  • Preferences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science

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