Want to regulate your emotions? Try bringing them to life, says study

Making your emotion into a character or person can help you detach from the emotion. (pic credit :Andrii Shevchuk)

I often recommend watching the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out to people who feel overcome by their emotions or have trouble regulating them. The movie largely takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl who moves cities with her parents. She experiences a range of emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – that are depicted as characters. Joy was originally in the driving seat when the girl was born, but other characters/emotions take over at different stages of the story – with comic and dramatic effect.

Story aside, I regard Inside Out as a helpful metaphor for mental health. It shows that we can experience a range of emotions without having to become any of them. It also shows that we can have a relationship with all of our emotions, and it’s not necessary for us to identify with any one in particular. You can change your language to say that you’re having an angry moment (when Anger is in the driving seat, for example) rather than saying that you’re an angry person. That can feel liberating.

A new study takes this one step further and suggests that the act of making your emotions into a character or person, just as Inside Out did, can help you regulate and detach from the emotions (especially the negative ones). Researchers at the University of Texas Austin found that ‘anthropomorphic thinking’ – which means bringing an emotion to life, or thinking of an emotion as a person – can help you regulate that emotion.

They tested out anthropomorphic thinking by asking survey participants to write about a time when they felt very sad, with one group asked to bring sadness into life as if it were a person. They were then asked to rate their levels of sadness on a scale of one to seven. Findings showed lower levels of sadness the group that wrote about the emotion as a person. The effects were heightened if the emotion-as-a-person was perceived to be a completely separate, independent person.

The researchers said: “Based on research on emotion regulation and the psychological process of detachment, we show that individuals instructed to anthropomorphise sadness (i.e., think of sadness as a person) report less experienced sadness afterwards. We argue that this reduction of emotion occurs because anthropomorphic thinking increases the perceived distance between the self and the anthropomorphised emotion, thereby creating a feeling of detachment.”

So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by an emotion, try picking up a pen and writing a character sketch of this emotion to help you detach from it. But maybe stick to negative emotions: the strategy works in the same way for happy ones, too. So, if Joy is in your driving seat today, you may want to keep her close and let her be.

The research article When Sadness Comes Alive, Will It be Less Painful? The Effects of Anthropomorphic Thinking on Sadness Regulation and Consumption is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

A summary of the research is published in Science Daily.

Stop pursuing happiness if you want to be happy, say psychologists

Call off the pursuit of happiness if you want to be happy, say psychologists

Call off the pursuit of happiness if you want to be happy, say psychologists (pic: istockphoto.com/michaklootwijk)

It sounds a cruel irony, but if you put too much pressure on yourself to be happy it can have totally the opposite effect, according to psychologists. Focusing on your own fulfilment rather than your connections with others can leave you feeling lonely, they say.

Researchers from the University of Denver and the University of California, Berkeley, asked people to fill out an online questionnaire to gauge how far they valued happiness. They then filled out journals at the end of the day, reporting on stressful events during the day and how stressed and lonely they felt about them. The results showed that the higher someone values happiness, the lonelier they feel during a stressful event – regardless of their age, gender or background.

A second part of the experiment tested whether prioritising happiness is the cause of loneliness, asking people to watch a film clip after reading an article about the importance of happiness. Again, those who had higher expectations of happiness ended up feeling disappointed. The research authors say: “A desire for happiness can lead to reduced happiness and wellbeing. It may be that to reap the benefits of happiness people should want it less.”

This study backs up recent research from Germany suggesting that pessimists have a longer, happier life than optimists.

But rather than pessimism or optimism, perhaps it’s realism – and being grateful for what we have rather than continually wanting something more – that leads to real happiness? I’m reminded of the quote from Epictetu: “A wise man is he who does not grieve for the thing which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

Gaming improves wellbeing in older generation, says academic study

Psychologists say older people who play video games are happier than those who don’t. (pic: istockphoto.com/Feverpitched)

You might traditionally expect people around retirement age to favour pursuits like crosswords, bridge, bowls or knitting. But scientists have shown that people aged 60-plus are active in more unusual ways. They’ve found that the senior generation who play video games are happier than those who don’t.

Psychologists from North Carolina State University in the US researched ‘Successful aging through video games‘ with 140 people aged 63 and over. They wanted to discover the differences in emotional wellbeing and depression between older adults who play video games and older adults who don’t game at all.

They found that older people who played video games regularly or occasionally had higher levels of wellbeing and fewer incidence of depression compared with older people who aren’t gamers. “Findings suggest that playing may serve as a positive activity associated with successful aging,” concluded the researchers.