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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.
In this article, we consider whether facial expressions of emotion relate in theoretically interesting ways to personal adjustment. We first consider the conceptual benefits of this line of inquiry. Then, to anticipate why brief samples of emotional behavior should relate to personal adjustment, we review evidence indicating that facial expressions of emotion correspond to intrapersonal processes and social outcomes. We then review studies showing that facial expressions relate in theoretically significant ways to adjustment after the death of a spouse, in long-term relationships, and in the context of chronic psychological disorders.
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), verbal disclosure is often complex and painful. The authors examined the voluntary disclosure-nondisclosure of CSA in relation to nonverbal expressions of emotion in the face. Consistent with hypotheses derived from recent theorizing about the moral nature of emotion, CSA survivors who did not voluntarily disclose CSA showed greater facial expressions of shame, whereas CSA survivors who voluntarily disclosed CSA expressed greater disgust. Expressions of disgust also signaled sexual abuse accompanied by violence. Consistent with recent theorizing about smiling behavior, CSA nondisclosers made more polite smiles, whereas nonabused participants expressed greater genuine positive emotion. Discussion addressed the implications of these findings for the study of disclosure of traumatic events, facial expression, and the links between morality and emotion.