Anyone who’s ever shared struggles with a friend has probably received some version of the advice to “look at it from a different perspective”:
- I know you’re overloaded at work, but think about how lucky you are to have a job.
- That was a harsh thing to say, but he is under a lot of stress these days.
- You didn’t blow your diet…holiday parties don’t count!
Called “cognitive reappraisal,” this emotion-regulation strategy is one we often use inside our own heads. When something makes us feel bad, we might try to re-tell the story to ourselves in a way that isn’t quite so painful.
While researchers have long considered this a healthy way to cope, a new study suggests that it might only be helpful in certain contexts—and detrimental to our well-being in others.
Cognitive reappraisal moderates our emotions about a situation, rather than changing the situation itself. But what if the situation—the stressful job, the unfulfilling relationship, the unhealthy eating—could be improved? In that case, alleviating our negative feelings might reduce our motivation to make those improvements. In fact, previous research has suggested that people who are skilled at reappraisal are less depressed, but only if the stressors in their life are uncontrollable.
For this study, researchers recruited 74 young adults and asked them to complete questionnaires measuring their well-being, including their levels of depression, anxiety, stress, neuroticism (their tendency to experience negative emotions), social anxiety, and self-esteem. Then, participants downloaded a special app that periodically pinged them to answer a survey, about ten times a day for a week. The surveys asked if they’d done any cognitive reappraisal since the last ping—and how much they felt in control of what was going on.
According to the results, participants who used cognitive reappraisal more overall didn’t tend to be happier. Instead, situation mattered. People with higher well-being—higher self-esteem and less depression, anxiety, stress, neuroticism, and social anxiety—tended to use reappraisal more in uncontrollable contexts than in controllable ones. For example, they might have used it for bad weather but not for bad test grades. As well-being scores decreased, however, that pattern flipped.
“When a situation can be directly changed, reappraisal may undermine the adaptive function of emotions in motivating action,” the researchers write. If managing our emotions becomes a substitute for taking action toward a better life—for ourselves or for others—it isn’t doing us any good. Negative emotions shouldn’t always be reasoned away; they can provide the indication and the fuel to make a change.
Because the researchers only measured well-being once, this study can’t prove that the healthy use of perspective taking causes us to be happier. (It might be the other way around, where happy people are more adept at using emotion-regulation strategies.) Co-author Peter Koval, a research fellow at Australian Catholic University, says that he and his colleagues are working on an experimental study that could illuminate this relationship.
Ultimately, one-size-fits-all advice—“If you want to be happy, change your perspective”—may be misguided. Cultivating happiness may require flexibility and agility, the capacity to employ an arsenal of techniques when and where they fit.