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If Anyone Needs to Stay Positive, Just Validate Their Feelings—Study Says


Telling a distraught friend or family member something as simple as “I understand why you feel this way” can go a long way in helping loved ones feel better, new research suggests.

In an Ohio State University study, participants described a real-life incident to researchers that angered them.

When the researchers did not show support or understanding for the anger that the participants described, the narrators showed a decrease in positive emotions. But when the researchers validated what the participants were saying, their positive emotions were protected and stayed the same.

Similarly, study participants reported drops in their general mood when recalling the event that triggered the anger, and only those who were validated reported a recovery of mood back to its starting point.

No significant differences were found in the negative emotions of the participants, a result that speaks to the value of focusing on protecting positivity, said Jennifer Cheavens, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

“We have underestimated the power of positive emotions. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to remedy negative emotions, but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about helping people harness and nurture positive emotions, ”Cheavens said.

“It is very important to help people with their depression, anxiety and fear, but it is also important to help people to harness curiosity, love, flexibility and optimism. People can feel sad and overwhelmed, and also hopeful and curious, in the same general time frame. “

In three experiments, researchers assessed the effects of validation and invalidation on what is clinically known as positive and negative affect. Positive affect refers to positive emotions and expression that, according to Cheavens, allows us to be curious, connected, and flexible in our thinking. Negative affect, on the other hand, refers to negative emotions and expressions that range from disgust to fear and sadness.

How the experiments worked

A total of 307 undergraduate students participated in the experiments. The students completed questionnaires that measured positive and negative affect at the beginning and end of the study and general mood at various times during the experiments.

The researchers asked participants to think and write for five minutes about a moment when they felt intense anger, and then verbally described those experiences to a researcher. Based on random assignments, the experimenter validated or invalidated his feelings of anger.

Participants’ experiences with anger spanned a wide range: problems with roommates, unfaithful romantic partners, being the victim of robbery, or getting angry at their parents.

The experimenters who listened to their stories used flexible scripts to respond. The validation comments included phrases such as “Of course you would be angry about that” or “I hear what you are saying and I understand that you are feeling angry.”

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The disabling responses ranged from “That doesn’t sound angry” to “Why would that make you so angry?”

The results showed that all participants had a decrease in positive affect while thinking and writing about being angry. However, when they began to describe the situation to the experimenters, the positive affect of the validated participants matched or even exceeded their baseline measures. Positive affect scores for those who were invalidated did not recover as they spoke with the experimenters.

According to five measures of mood in two of the three studies, participants’ moods were constantly darkened when considering what made them angry. The moods of the validated participants were restored to normal, but the moods of the disabled students overall continued to worsen.

The research team conducted the studies with plans to apply the results in a therapy setting. But the findings are also relevant to relationships, Cheavens said.

“When you process negative emotions, that negative affect is activated. But if someone validates you, keep your positive affection muffled. Validation protects people’s affections so they can maintain curiosity in interpersonal interactions and in therapy, ”he said.

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“Adding validation to therapy helps people feel understood, and when we feel understood, we can get feedback on how we can change too. But it is not an exclusively clinical question; often the same ways that therapy improves are the ways that it improves parenting, friendships, and romantic relationships. “

Source: Ohio State University

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