Our wellbeing isn’t just affected by what we think about, but also how we think. In particular, the way in which we process past life events has an important impact on our life satisfaction and physical health. A series of experiments conducted by Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues at the University of California, Riverside, shows how we should analyse the negative, but just experience the positive (Lyubomirsky, Sousa & Dickerhoof, 2006).
This was designed to find out which method of processing negative events is most beneficial: writing, talking aloud or privately thinking about them. The study found those who thought privately about negative events saw reductions in the life satisfaction and no changes in other measures. On the other hand, participants who talked or wrote about a negative event showed improved mental health, life satisfaction and social functioning.
Here participants turned their attention to positive events in their lives – and were asked to write, talk or privately think about them. Here it was privately thinking about positive life events that was associated with increased life satisfaction, rather than talking or writing about them.
The third study looked more closely at exactly how people thought about positive events. It compared merely replaying a positive event in the mind, with breaking it down and attempting to analyse it. This found that, as expected, thinking about a really happy moment increased health and physical functioning. On the other hand, analysing a positive event tended to reduce well-being and health.
The message of this research is that systematic analysis of negative events improves well-being and health. Positive events, on the other hand, should just be re-experienced, not analysed.
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Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., & Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life’s triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 692-708.