The Up Side Of Being Down

Let’s be honest, sometimes there is nothing worse than having to be around happy people, especially if those people insist on telling us to ‘cheer up’ or (god forbid) to ‘turn that frown upside-down’ (and please don’t tell me how many muscles it takes to frown).

Despite some suggestions that happy children learn more effectively, the evidence remains pretty weak. Emotions are more complex and we can rarely apply such simple rules. Emotions ebb and flow and teenagers are especially prone to seemingly irrational emotional explosions and deep dark troughs of despair. While depression is often debilitating and should be identified early and treated appropriately, bouts of ‘low mood’ are rarely damaging and often fleeting.

I therefore dedicate this short post to those out there who revel in their occasional bouts of miserableness and offer some interesting trivia about this highly misunderstood emotion.

[Disclaimer: Some of the studies quoted aren’t that convincing but, then again, neither are the majority of those espousing the cognitive benefits of happiness]

1. Happy People Are Lazy Thinkers.

Happy people tend to rely on superficial strategies in order to collect information from the outside world and are more likely to employ stereotypes than their unhappy counterparts.

Christian Unkelbach conducted an experiment using a ‘shoot ‘em up’ computer game where participants were told to shoot characters carrying guns. The interesting part of the experiment was that some of the characters were wearing turbans (displaying the stereotypical image of Muslim). Happy people were more likely to shoot the characters wearing turbans (even if they were unarmed) than less happy individuals. Apart from revealing some very sad truths about the destructive nature of stereotyping, the so-called ‘Turban Effect’ also suggests that people who display higher levels of positive affect are less likely too judge the situation in any real depth, unconsciously choosing instead to activate stereotypes stored in long-term memory, fuelled by current events and media representations.

2. Sadness Enhances Memory.

Research conducted by Elizabeth Kensinger, a psychology professor at Boston College, discovered that negative life events are remembered better than positive ones, suggesting that negative affect actually enhances memory. Joseph Forgas, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, asked people to recall items they had seen in a shop. In the first condition the task was carried out on one of those grey rainy days when most of us feel a little bit down and perhaps even in a bit of a bad mood. In the second condition, and in an identical situation, the task was carried out on a bright sunny day. Forgas found that the rainy day condition resulted in a larger recall tally and that memories for items were in much greater detail than the same task carried out on a sunny day. The suggestion is that while positive mood impairs memory, negative affect somehow enhances it. Convinced? No, me neither. Perhaps the participants in the second condition were just eager to get out into the sun and enjoy the good weather, impairing their attention and making them impatient?

3. Sad People Are Less Influenced By Misleading Information.

Participants were shown a photograph of either a car crash or a wedding. Later on the same participants were asked to recall either a happy memory or a sad memory from their past in order to shift their mood into either negative or positive affect. They were then asked a series of questions about the photographs, including some misleading information (for example, asking about an object that didn’t appear in the photograph). It was discovered that those participants who had recalled a negative memory from their past (the negative-affect group) were better able to recall the original details and were much less likely to be influenced by the misleading information. Participants in the positive-affect group, on the other hand, were much more likely to recall details that had been contaminated with the false information.

4. Sad People Are More Motivated.

The problem with happiness is that it makes us too comfortable; we strive for it and (some of us) eventually reach our destination only to find that it’s so damn good that we want things to stay exactly how they are. Becoming settled in the status quo means that there is little motivation to move on, in fact, moving on might lead to less happiness. Sad people, on the other hand, have something to strive for and aim towards: that small but personally significant achievement that lifts the spirit for a moment, filling us with good vibes and a more acute feeling of self-worth. Happy people have no real need to deal with challenge in their environment while those with a more negative mood are more motivated to challenge themselves and push for change in order to lift their mood.

In another study conducted by Forgas, participants watched either a happy film or sad film and were then given a demanding cognitive task to complete. The task included a number of questions that had no time limit, so participants could spend as long on them as they wished. They were then assessed on total time spent on the questions, the number of correct answers and the number of questions attempted. Those participants who watched the happy film (let’s call them the ‘happy group’) spent less time on the questions, attempted fewer questions and received a lower score than the ‘sad group’. It seems that people are less motivated to exert effort if they are already experiencing a positive mood, those with a more negative mood, however, have more to gain from persevering in terms of elevating their negative affect.

So next time you’re in a low mood and that annoyingly bubbly person invades your precious space in an attempt to cheer you up, remember that you brain is working more productively than a head full of fairies and unicorns.

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