Monday, 22 October 2012
A challenge for Nathaniel Lambert and his colleagues was to show that there's something especially beneficial about sharing stories of our positive experiences with others, beyond the pleasure that comes merely from talking to a friend, and beyond the simple act of recalling a positive experience. To do this, the researchers recorded the mood of dozens of student participants after they'd shared a positive experience with a friend or partner, and they compared these mood results with those taken from participants who wrote about a positive experience, or who shared neutral information with a friend. The researchers found that sharing your good news with another person is especially beneficial, more than writing about it, and more than just enjoying social contact.
The benefits aren't fleeting either. Another study had participants complete diaries of their mood and life satisfaction over a four-week period. At the end of the study, those who'd shared positive experiences with another person at least twice a week were happier and more satisfied with life than those who'd only written about positive experiences twice a week, and they were happier and more content than others who'd written regularly about what they'd learned in class and shared that information with a friend.
There's a caveat. When you share your good news, the amplification of your joy isn't guaranteed. The friend, relative or partner who hears your good news has an important part to play. Ideally, we need them to respond in what the researchers call an "active-constructive" style.
To investigate this, student participants took a test about desert survival, with their romantic partner taking a different test in another room. Next the students were given false feedback, suggesting they'd done exceptionally well on the desert test. They were then told the news of their success had been shared with their partner. Finally, the partner's reaction (fabricated by the researchers) was sent over in an email - sometimes this was "active constructive" (Great job! I'm so proud of you" etc); other times it was "active destructive" ("it doesn't sound that hard to me"); "passive constructive" (i.e. little more than a smiley symbol); or "passive destructive" ("the girl told me your score"). Participants who received active constructive feedback from their partner subsequently experienced twice as much positive emotion as participants in the other conditions.
The researchers said this shows what a large difference it makes to us, how our close relations respond to our good news. This actually fits with past research showing that the way friends and family respond to positive events in our lives is a more reliable predictor of the future health of that relationship than the way they respond to our negative news. You may have experienced this yourself - the particular hurt that can come from a close friend or relation being entirely unmoved by good news that meant so much to you.
What this new study doesn't tell us is why, when it is enthusiastically received, sharing our good news provides us with an extra dose of positive emotion, more than merely recalling it or writing about it. The researchers made a number of suggestions - for example, they said talking about a positive experience could increase its "social reality", making it especially accessible to memory; friends may point out positive implications of our news that had so far eluded us; and/or we perhaps take extra joy in making another person happy through our good news.
The message seems clear enough. The next time something good happens to you, don't keep it to yourself. The researchers quoted an unknown author: "Happiness held is the seed; happiness shared is the flower."
Lambert, N., Gwinn, A., Baumeister, R., Strachman, A., Washburn, I., Gable, S., and Fincham, F. (2012). A boost of positive affect: The perks of sharing positive experiences Journal of Social and Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1177/0265407512449400
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.