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Pollyanna, Eleanor Porter’s buoyant novel from 1913, tapped into something deeply rooted in the human psyche. In the story, the eponymous protagonist is tragically orphaned and sent to live with a grumpy aunt, but nonetheless maintains such an optimistic view that it infects everyone around her. The story was so beloved by readers when it was first published that it spawned “Glad Clubs” all over the United States devoted to Pollyanna’s practice of making gratitude lists. 

Over a century later, Pollyanna has become shorthand for someone who is excessively, even foolishly optimistic—oblivious to their circumstances and to the pain and suffering in the world. To call someone a Pollyanna is to insult them. But the pursuit of hope and happiness in the midst of difficulty is an enduring human trait. Many of us, when faced with defeat or calamity, will reach for the silver lining, the bright detail that can help to soften our circumstances.

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It turns out this instinct may be embedded in our neurobiology. When someone responds to pain and suffering with optimism rather than despair, they exhibit distinct activity in the brain’s default network, responsible for tasks involving memory, imagination, and subjective interpretations, according to a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The authors of the PNAS study attempted to simulate in the lab the kind of scenario a real-life caregiver might experience—the secondhand suffering of a patient. How a caregiver responds to the distress of their loved ones or clients can significantly impact the mental health of both. The researchers presented 40 study subjects with videos of patients describing their experiences with cystic fibrosis, then measured subjects’ neural responses and asked them to write down everything they could remember from each video.

Those who saw a silver lining in the suffering of the patients showed a wider variety of brain wave patterns immediately following the viewing than those who had negative responses. The authors speculate that these unusual cognitive patterns might help people “undo” their negative reactions before they are encoded in memory, though such processes may happen below the level of conscious awareness. 

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The findings align with a longstanding theory of positive psychology that holds that positive emotion leads to a wider range of ideas and potential paths of action, whereas negative emotion leads to a narrowing of one’s scope of attention and thinking, the authors write. This is called the “broaden and build” theory of positive emotion, and it is supported by a growing body of empirical evidence.

Negative emotion has its value: It can serve as a motivator for change.

Another name psychologists give to the process of “undoing” a negative reaction is “cognitive reappraisal.” Researchers have found that some people are naturally better at it, and this trait is consistently linked with good mental health. The aim is to change “the way you think about something, to change how you feel about it,” says Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the director of the Affective Science & Health Laboratory.

People who suffer from social anxiety seem to have more trouble making this kind of mental shift, while people who suffer from depression seem less likely or willing to try it, according to the findings from a 2018 study in Clinical Psychology Review, which reviewed 104 papers. “The research seems to suggest people with depression aren’t necessarily less able to use reappraisal,” Ford says, “but they’re less likely to.”

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While seeing the good in the bad may come more naturally to some of us, evidence suggests it can be learned. In fact, it’s one of the foundational skills people are taught in cognitive behavioral therapy, a popular form of psychotherapy increasingly recommended as treatment for depression and anxiety. In one 2017 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies, subjects who participated in three short online reappraisal trainings experienced fewer negative emotions associated with visualizing a recent stressful event two weeks after completing the course. All three groups also experienced a significant increase in general well-being after the training.

But trying to feel good about misfortune doesn’t always work. “Western culture often promotes feeling good,” says Ford. “A reappraisal tactic that helps people feel good in the face of stress is likely to be culturally reinforced. However, this tactic might work better in some contexts compared to others.” It can “backfire when you spend precious resources trying to reappraise but are actually ruminating instead,” she says.

And powerful negative emotion has its value: It can serve as a motivator for change. In research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ford, along with her co-authors, found that successful cognitive reappraisal can reduce willingness to take political action. The researchers exposed U.S. participants to clips about politics—asking them to use specific strategies (or no strategy) to regulate their emotions—and then tracked and analyzed their diary entries to examine how they coped. “People who use reappraisal more successfully to reduce negative emotions about politics are less politically engaged—less likely to donate, volunteer time, or attend demonstrations,” says Ford. 

In another article, Ford and colleagues find that people who used reappraisal more successfully to reduce fear about COVID-19 were less likely to engage in COVID-protecting health behaviors recommended by the CDC like mask wearing and social distancing, putting themselves and others in the community at risk. What good is a great mood if it prevents us from protecting ourselves and others against a deadly virus? 

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Ultimately, silver lining thinking represents something of a trade-off: While reframing a negative experience in a more positive way can improve one’s mental health, it can also reduce the likelihood of taking action to change that experience. How we respond to adversity seems to require a bit of a balancing act. So look for the silver lining, but keep an eye on that storm cloud.

Lead image: Valentina Photos / Shutterstock

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