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Reverse Your Negative Narratives

Rosanne Ullman | April 26, 2015 | 2:27 PM
Photo By Jessica Peterson for Getty Images

Having a bad day? Tell someone what happened, but put a positive spin on it. The way you talk about it can affect your psychological health.

 

When a team of researchers conducted two studies that looked into the stories we tell about ourselves, they found a common thread: we do better when we express having some control over life and when, to channel the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” we take a sad song and make it better.

 

“We found that mental health improved more over time for people whose stories had two features: agency and redemption,” explains Ilana Walder-Biesanz, a researcher on the team. “Agency means telling your story with yourself as an active character who has some control over events and your reactions, rather than being subject to the whims of fate. Redemption means telling your story in a way that recognizes the positivity in negative events—for instance, emphasizing that those events provided a learning opportunity or brought you closer to your loved ones.” The researchers defined good mental health as low levels of depression and high levels of life satisfaction and psychological and social well-being. 

 

Published in a recent issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the research was led by Jonathan Adler, an assistant professor at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. The findings apply throughout the range of negative occurrences—everything from a client’s nasty comment to a serious health diagnosis. However, finding something positive to talk about doesn’t mean that we should go into denial about the negative aspects. Adler cautions that, in order to enjoy the psychological benefits, we need to “acknowledge and explore the negative experiences before finding the positive elements.”

 

It still may be better to develop a negative narrative than no narrative at all. Walder-Biesanz says the conventional wisdom—it helps to talk about it—is supported by research. “We didn’t study that, but a lot of studies out there confirm the value of talking about experiences with others as a way to process them and assimilate them to your identity, regardless of how you frame your story,” she says.

 

When you’re on the receiving end—clients are catching you up on what’s been happening in their lives since their previous visit—can you help them shape their narrative to their own psychological advantage? “In all relationships, we are helping people craft their own personal narratives,” Adler says. “There is an accumulating body of science suggesting that there are more and less psychologically productive ways of telling those stories. So, hairdressers can certainly attend to themes like agency and redemption in their clients’ stories and might think about proposing alternative storylines.”

 

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