Lots of psychological techniques are all about reframing — looking on the bright side. Instead of focusing on a problem, argue many psychologists, find something positive to think about. When you're going through a break-up, focus on a new hobby. These techniques are becoming more and more popular. But do they actually work?
To find out, a group of scientists from Northwestern University conducted a laboratory study and looked at survey data from thousands of participants. The researchers found that finding a silver lining indeed makes people feel better than focusing in on the problem ... Particularly if those people are poor. People who made more than $35,000 a year didn't see as many benefits from reframing their situations.
“Individuals with lower incomes have less access to resources to directly change a stressful situation they may find themselves in,” said Claudia Haase, a human development professor who worked on the study. “They may find it more effective to deal with anxiety by reframing the situation.”In other words, wealthier people can more easily change their situation. Poor people are more often stuck where they are and are better off trying to change how they think about their situation.
I have mixed feelings about these results. Sure, focusing on the positive might make poor people feel less anxious, and it's a very useful strategy for everyday life. But on a bigger level, it encourages people to ignore a bad system rather than fight it.
Income inequality is growing throughout the country and world. Telling poor people to focus on the bright side is great for people in charge, but for the 99 percent, it means accepting the status quo. If you're upset about tigers going extinct, you might be more cheerful if you distract yourself by thinking about, say, how your favorite television show is producing a new season. But the tigers will keep on dying.
Maybe it's best to combine the strategies — using reframing as a tool in personal life, while taking on bigger problems head-on in larger society.