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Positive emotions promote adjustment to aversive life events. However, evolutionary theory and empirical research on trauma disclosure suggest that in the context of stigmatized events, expressing positive emotions might incur social costs. To test this thesis, the authors coded genuine (Duchenne) smiling and laughter and also non-Duchenne smiling from videotapes of late-adolescent and young adult women, approximately half with documented histories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), as they described the most distressing event of their lives. Consistent with previous studies, genuine positive emotional expression was generally associated with better social adjustment two years later. However, as anticipated, CSA survivors who expressed positive emotion in the context of describing a past CSA experience had poorer long-term social adjustment, whereas CSA survivors who expressed positive emotion while describing a nonabuse experience had improved social adjustment. These findings suggest that the benefits of positive emotional expression may often be context specific.
Laughter facilitates the adaptive response to stress by increasing the psychological distance from distress and by enhancing social relations. To test these hypotheses, the authors related measures of bereaved adults' laughter and smiling 6 months postloss to measures of their (a) subjective emotion and dissociation from distress, (b) social relations, and (c) responses they evoked in others. Duchenne laughter, which involves orbicularis oculi muscle action, related to self-reports of reduced anger and increased enjoyment, the dissociation of distress, better social relations, and positive responses from strangers, whereas non-Duchenne laughter did not. Lending credence to speculations in the ethological literature, Duchenne laughter correlated with different intrapersonal and interpersonal responses than Duchenne smiles. Discussion focuses on the relevance of these findings to theories of positive emotion.