The Science Behind “Fake It ‘Til You Make It”

When you’re smiling,
The whole world smiles with you
When you’re laughing
The sun comes shining through
…Is that old Jazz Age chestnut just so much Pollyanna hoo-ha or does it really work?

According to therapists who use the fake it until you make it method of “behavioral activation,” it does. Why?  It’s science. When you smile (even though you are anything but happy)  your brain releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides, along with neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. The endorphins act as a mild pain reliever, while the serotonin acts as an antidepressant.

But you need more than a smile to change your moods and behaviors. And behavioral activation has a lot to offer.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), almost 20 million of us in the U.S. suffer from depression. And another almost 20% of us struggle with chronic anxiety and various forms of stress. But for many of us, these negative states can be turned around using behavioral activation strategies.

When you put one foot in front of the other, you start walking, says the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists. You may not initially be in the mood when you start but you end up feeling good afterward and are happy you took that first step.


Behavioral activation (BA) is a third-generation behavior therapy originally created to treat depression. As a treatment for depression and other mood disorders, it is based on the theory that, as an individual becomes depressed, he/she tends to engage more and more in avoidance and isolation, which only serves to keep the depression going or make symptoms worse.  BA helps reduce that depression and anxiety by triggering a reward feedback system.

Those avoidant behaviors, (like staying in bed when it’s not bedtime or ordering Door Dash when you should be at the gym)  are replaced gradually with more win-win behaviors, which in turn improve your self-esteem and confidence.  That can increase your motivation to continue this positive behavior, keep going forward and not stay stuck in your rut.

The evolution of behavioral therapy can be traced back to developments in psychology from as early as 1913. But nowadays we have the field of Cognitive Behavior therapy (CBT) to thank for this approach. Dr. Albert Ellis was a pioneer in behavior therapy in the 1950s, followed by Dr. Aaron T Beck in the 60s ( still acknowledged as the  Father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy).  BA is considered the third wave of this field of psychology and now utilizes positive behaviors to influence not-so-positive emotions, thoughts, and moods including persistent sadness, grief, isolation, low self-esteem, and more.


In the grip of those negative mind-body states, you are often unable to derive the everyday joy that others (and you at one time)  find in activities like socializing, working out, creativity, outdoor adventures, meals, caring for self, family, and pets.

Instead, people who are feeling sad or lonely may seek out situations or fall into patterns that confirm their feelings of isolation and sadness, says the Association of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies. This is what’s known as a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to a downward spiral.

The guiding principle in BA is to step out of your box and step back into activities that used to bring you a sense of fulfillment, even if you feel resistance. It’s likely that you will experience those former good feelings once you do, promise therapists.

So how does this differ from “faking” confidence, competence, or self-assuredness to land a job, get a boyfriend, or win a vote?  The -fake-it-til- you- make- it gimmick may indeed serve you. Once.

But turning it into a repeatable skill is what will really serve you. Through intentional tracking, you improve your ability to recognize positive experiences throughout your day and start to see what caused them.  This may help you feel more motivated to keep doing those positive activities and eliminating the ones that are not useful or productive. ”Faking it” implies forced action, a lack of authenticity, warn some therapists  Instead, seeing yourself on a path to self-actualization creates a more positive and enjoyable process and experience ― and can help you get past patterns that keep getting you stuck.


To feel more consistently engaged and happy in the world, balance is critical, advises the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies. We need a balance of goals that reflect our values,  pleasures that feel authentic, and an ongoing sense of mastery in life. This balance is different for everyone. It evolves and changes. Equilibrium doesn’t come fast or easy. Don’t try to walk someone else’s path.


What? Where? Why? Pay attention to your mood triggers during the day and how long they last. It’s normal to feel sad when you hear a sad song, or recall a friendship that has ended, but does that sadness stay with you all day? All week? That’s not normal. The more aware you are, the easier it is to change

  • Letting the phone ring: Notice your avoidance behaviors. Maybe being stressed at work or feeling down because of seasonal changes makes you want to just curl up in a ball or sleep for ten hours instead of taking a walk or talking to friends. That’s not good. But pushing yourself toward healthier responses –even if you don’t feel like it, is. And it gets easier with repetition.
  • Make a date: Try activity scheduling– purposefully scheduling enjoyable and meaningful activities into your day/week/month even if in your down mood you think you won’t enjoy them. It usually leads in a surprisingly positive direction. Make sure you do things in line with our values and goals.
  • Be patient. Your brain is slow to embrace change if it’s been stuck in neutral or reverse for a while. But it does change with practice.
  • Review your values and goals regularly especially when things seem gloomy. Are you living those standards? Take one step in that direction every day. One step usually leads to another.
  • Don’t isolate. A little alone time is fine. But too much may be a red flag that springs from depression or anxiety or fear of some kind. We need friends and community to flourish. Go to a library event in person, join a book club, or a hiking/walking group, learn a new skill with other beginners.
  • It’s 10 am, where is my joy? Try noticing your mood changes by the hour. Make a chart for the week and rate your mood day by day and hour by hour on a scale of 1 (not good) to 10 (excellent) from rising to retiring for the night. You should be able to see a pattern after a month of monitoring that may suggest where you need to apply a little BA. Therapists say their patients get much better results when they write things down rather than depending on memory. Note the activities that gave you the highest scores. Try to amp those up in your life.

-Frances Goulart

Photo: Unsplash


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