Training yourself to find the bright side of any situation seems like a wise and noble pursuit. There are myriad strategies for developing this skill to cope with breakups, family illnesses, job losses, and financial woes.
But for those who cringe at the notion of being boundlessly optimistic, new research offers a dose of schadenfreude.
Psychologists at universities in Australia have shown that “cognitive reappraisal”—the act of grappling with a situation by recasting it in either a more positive or negative light—can sometimes result in a lower sense of wellbeing. According to a small study recently published in Psychological Science, reframing our perception of events—which psychologists use as a strategy in cognitive behavioral therapy—typically only boosts our wellbeing when we feel we lack control over the outcome.
The research relates to a psychological theory called the strategy-situation fit hypothesis, a theory about the best way to approach patients of anxiety and other psychological conditions, which came of age in the 1980s. It advocates for approaching problems adaptably depending on the circumstances. By this standard, reframing events would enhance a person’s mood only when they had little sway over the situation. The theory had previously been supported by lab research alone, but these researchers wanted to test it in daily life.
To do so, the scientists recruited 74 Australian adults, age 18-32, who were instructed to download a custom phone app designed for the investigation. Over the course of seven days, it pinged the participants every 30 minutes asking them how they were feeling about events in their day since the last time they were pinged. A short survey also asked how much control the participants felt they had over a situation, on a scale from one to 100, and whether they had taken any action to change their environment. At the beginning of their week in the study, the subjects also completed questionnaires measuring their levels of depression, anxiety, neuroticism, and self-esteem, among other traits.
Participants who had a better self-reported sense of wellbeing at the start of the survey (as revealed by their questionnaires) tended to reappraise an event when they felt they didn’t have a way to influence it, and did so less often when there was a sense they could control an environment or outcome. In other words, the happiest people did not mindlessly adopt a glass-half-full attitude; they reframed the situation only when it proved useful.
Those with a lower sense of wellbeing, on the other hand, reported the opposite: They tended to use a reframing strategy more when they had greater control over circumstances, and less when they didn’t.
Peter Koval, a research fellow in the School of Psychology at Australian Catholic University, and lead author of the study, says reframing in this way might dovetail with the now popular practice of “acceptance,” which is fashionable among Westerners drawn to Eastern practices like yoga and meditation. But, he adds, the connection is not clear.
Given the popularity of both practices, the research begs for more answers about why we’re so drawn to them, and what they actually do.