Who Benefits From Looking at the Bright Side?

Who Benefits From Looking at the Bright Side?

Emily HiitnerEmily Hittner

Searching for a silver lining during a stressful situation can help decrease anxiety, particularly for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, new Northwestern University research suggests.

The findings, published in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion, “highlight the important role a person’s situation or environment plays in shaping how they deal with their emotions and how this matters for their health,” said first author Emily Hittner, a life-span developmental researcher at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Reappraisal, a common element of psychotherapy treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, involves finding something positive in a negative situation. Someone who worries about loneliness after a breakup, for example, might focus on finding new passions or rekindling an old friendship.

“We wondered whether reappraisal is really effective in reducing anxiety for everyone or whether some people benefit more from it,” said Hittner, a doctoral candidate in the Human Development and Social Policy program.

The Northwestern researchers analyzed data from two very different sources; a laboratory-based study of married spouses and a nine-year national survey from a large national sample of more than 2,000 people.

In the lab experiment, volunteers watched a short, upsetting film and were asked to reframe the situation if they felt negative emotions. They also reported on their income and whether they used reappraisal in their daily life.

The survey interviewed people in the mid-1990s and again nine years later. Participants were asked how often they used reappraisal strategies and screened for levels of clinical anxiety.

Both studies indicated that people who make less money benefit more from reframing the situation than those with higher incomes, possibly because they have less control over their environment. In both experiments, cognitive reappraisal began to lose its effectiveness when incomes rose above $35,000 per year.

“Individuals with lower incomes have less access to resources to directly change a stressful situation they may find themselves in,” said study co-author Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy. “They may find it more effective to deal with anxiety by reframing the situation.”

Co-author Katie Rim started the project as an undergraduate in Haase’s Life-Span Development Laboratory. Hittner discovered the findings held not only in a small laboratory-based study but also a large national longitudinal study – and ran with them.

Though the results aligned with past studies on depression, Rim said she was surprised by the nuances. “The fact that ‘looking on the bright side’ could have different effects for those from higher or lower socioeconomic backgrounds points to the importance of considering contextual factors when studying mental health,” she said. 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 12/17/18