Monday, November 26, 2012

Should you look back on the past with rose-colored glasses?

An old song says, “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”  The advice in this song is simple.  Focus on the positive elements of your life.  Don’t dwell on negative things that have happened.  Is that the key to your future happiness?

A fascinating paper in the September, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Erin O’Mara, James McNulty, and Benjamin Karney suggests that it isn’t as simple as that.  They explore two key factors that affect whether you should think positively about negative experiences in the past.

The first factor is controllability.  Some negative things that happen to you are uncontrollable.  A car accident, serious illness, or loss of a loved one is generally uncontrollable.  There was nothing you could do about the event that happened, and you have little control whether something like that is likely to happen in the future.

Other negative things are more controllable.  If you have a friend who is mean to you, you can choose not to spend time with that friend again.  If your job causes you stress, you can choose to do things differently at work, or even to change jobs.

The second factor is the severity of the negative event.  Some events are very negative.  Losing a loved one or being abused by a romantic partner are highly negative events.  Other events are not that awful.  A flat tire on your car, or a miscommunication with your partner are negative, but not tragic.

The authors of the paper first review evidence on uncontrollable events, and suggest that there is good reason to think that having a positive attitude toward uncontrollable events in the past is a good thing.  Classic research by Shelley Taylor, for example, suggests that a patient with breast cancer will adjust better and suffer fewer symptoms of depression by being optimistic rather than by being pessimistic about her disease.

The studies in this paper were particularly interested in controllable events.  To explore this issue, the studies followed newlyweds for several years.  They started by interviewing new husbands and wives about negative experiences they were experiencing.  They also counted the number of symptoms of depression that the members of the couple experienced.

For each negative experience (which could range from a miscommunication to emotional abuse), the individual rated how serious they thought it was.  The interviewer also rated the seriousness of each event.  That allowed the researchers to calculate the difference between how severe a person considered an event to be and the severity as rated by a more objective rater.  That difference was a measure of how strongly the person was wearing rose-colored glasses for a past event.

The researchers then followed couples for several years.  In one study, they also interviewed the couples a second time 2 years after the initial interview to find out what kinds of negative events they were experiencing.

So, what happened?

People who thought positively about negative events that were not that severe generally showed a decrease in symptoms of depression over time.  So, people who did not get that upset about the small things in life (like miscommunications) tended to feel good about life over time.

People who thought positively about severe negative events, though, actually showed an increase in symptoms of depression over time.  The reason for this increase is that these negative events were controllable.  By minimizing the importance of things like emotional abuse, people opened themselves up to experience more of it in the future.  The continued presence of severe negative events in a person’s life led to more symptoms of depression.

What does this mean?

It is important to be realistic about the controllable but negative events in life.  You cannot find ways to eliminate the negative in life if you always accentuate the positive.  If you are experiencing stress or abuse at home or at work, then the first step to changing the situation is being realistic about how bad it is.  Then, you can work toward making your life better.

On the other hand, life has lots of little stresses.  It is easy to get caught up in the details of who is doing the most housework or the latest nasty thing said by your teenage child.  For those situations, put on your rose-colored glasses and smile your way through them.