Cheering Sad Friends Up Might Not Be the Best Way to Help
Contrary to popular belief, taking someone's mind off their sadness and telling them to "cheer up" doesn't do much good. Misery loves company, and while it may be a tiresome cliché, there's actually some science behind it.
By joining a friend's moody state and commiserating with them, perhaps even adding to their grumpiness, you're actually doing a better job at cheering them up, and here's why.
Negative validation helps those with blue moods feel better about their current state. In a study led by Professor Denise Marigold of Renison University College at Waterloo, researchers discovered why people in bad moods don't respond to happy thoughts.
When sad, we often want others to recognize this. As a result, we're resistant to positivity—if no one will acknowledge our sadness, we only get grumpier. Offering up statements that show you agree with their current mood makes your friends feel validated in their emotions. They are, however, interested in hearing support for their negative feelings.
This tactic works particularly well with individuals who have low self-esteem, according to Marigold's research. Those without a high level of confidence aren't receptive to positivity when sad. When you approach your unhappy, less confident friends with a cheerful attitude, they end up feeling worse about themselves and their friendship with you.
Do both yourself and your friendship a favor by offering up remarks that fit the situation's negative mood. If they've just been dumped, share a few comments about how their former significant other was an awful person; if their pet passed away, it's not the time to bring up buying a new furry friend.
Comforting a friend can be a bit like writing an essay. Just like your high school English teacher might have lectured, you want to tell your audience what they already know. Rather than filling your friends with hope and positivity, cheer them up by reminding them how much everything sucks.
Seem counterintuitive? According to Marigold's aforementioned study, it's the perfect way to improve someone's mood.
When we're feeling depressed and beaten down by the world, every little piece of bad luck that comes our way is interpreted as well-deserved. We take bad news piled on top of bad news as confirmation of our feelings, and subconsciously—we like it.
Similarly, hearing someone reiterate what we already know—that things are going terribly—reassures us that we were both correct in our negative feelings and that others are in agreement.
Offer up phrases that will help reduce your friend's anxiety—and what's more calming than feeling like you're doing the right thing? Give them verbal conformation that they're behaving as they should, even if they already know it.
Reaffirm their uneasy minds with confirmations such as "There's not much you can do about it right now," or "You're making the right choice." These small statements will remind your friend they're acting appropriately, and, in turn, will make them feel less upset.
It's tempting to shake your friends out of a depressed mood, especially if you're someone with a strong dose of self-esteem. We all gravitate towards offering sad friends positive reframing, even if we know that it isn't really what the other party needs or wants.
Stop and think before you start shoving your own cheerfulness down your friend's throat. If you know a happy outlook isn't going to help, have a little empathy and join the pity party instead of trying to end it.
As Marigold commented to Science Daily, "If your attempt to point out the silver lining is met with a sullen reminder of the prevailing dark cloud, you might do best to just acknowledge the dark cloud and sympathize." Step outside of your attitude and feel their pain. Join the dark side and share a few negative feelings of your own, and your friend will feel cheerier.
Sometimes, you just need to sit silently and listen. It's difficult to determine the best course of action when faced with unhappy friends. Whether you choose to join them, wallowing in their mopey mood, or continue trying the old-fashioned method of cheering them up, keep in mind that your reactions shape their attitude about the friendship.
So go ahead, get negative with your friends—just make sure to do so when they're feeling down.