Denise Marigold, a social psychologist at the University of Waterloo, knows how hard it can be to cheer some people up. Her usual strategy for lifting friends out of the dumps is smiling encouragement—the glass is half full, things could be worse—which works well on those who share her sunny disposition. But she has struggled with boosting the confidence of the Eeyores in her life—the friends who look at every misfortune as a sad reflection of their own inadequacy.
"With low self-esteem friends in the past, I’ve always assumed that the best way to approach them was to cheer them up and tell them things would get better quickly," she says. "When they've brushed me off, I've worried I wasn’t doing a good job, and gotten frustrated that I couldn’t help."
People with low self-esteem found cheerful encouragement far less helpful than simple affirmations of their feelings. They also reported feeling generally less supported by friends, which the data proved correct.
Research has shown that positive thinkers lead happier lives, so it's understandable that our instinct in the face of someone else's despondence is to tell them to keep their chin up. But a new study by Marigold and other psychologists demonstrates just how wrong this instinct can be. While optimism may lift the spirits of the optimistically minded, those with a gloomy outlook don't want sunshine, the researchers found. They just want understanding.
Over six experiments, the study tested the effects of "positively reframing" and "negatively validating" the problems of young adults with high and low self-esteem. Positive re-framing, the study explains, consists of "reassurances that the negative event is ultimately beneficial to the recipient's growth, that improvement is very likely, and that the problem is minor and ultimately insignificant." Negative validation, on the other hand, "communicate[s] that the feelings, actions, or responses of the recipient are normal and appropriate to the situation" and "express[es] appreciation for the recipient's predicament or for the difficulty of the situation." The experiments measured participants' reactions to these two approaches in a variety of situations. In one, subjects imagined talking to a friend after a hypothetical break-up or bad grade and answered questions about the experience. In another, they actually shared feelings with a real friend.
People with low self-esteem found cheerful encouragement far less helpful than simple affirmations of their feelings. They also reported feeling generally less supported by friends, which the data proved correct: While participants in supporting roles claimed to understand pessimists wouldn't respond well to positivity, they approached them with positivity anyway. In one experiment, the supporters even showed more sympathy to people with high self-esteem.
"People tend to be uncomfortable dealing with negative emotion, so we believe it’s best that everyone thinks positively, and we try to make them think that way," Marigold says.
Case in point: One of her friends recently announced a divorce, and her first thought was, "Well, at least you don't have kids." "I had to bite my tongue!" she says. "What is your role as a friend? Is it to solve all someone's problems, or make them feel cared for? Not all people are ready to take on a more positive perspective."