June 10, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team
In This Article
Telling a distressed friend or family member something as simple as ‘I understand why you feel that way’ can go a long way toward helping loved ones feel better, new research suggests. The power of validation helps people stay positive.
Participants in the study were asked to explain a real-life incident that had upset them to the researchers.
Storytellers’ positive emotions decreased when researchers didn’t express support or understanding for the fury participants were narrating. However, the participants’ positive sentiments were safeguarded and remained the same when the researchers evaluated what they were stating.
Validations help in mood recovery
Similarly, study participants reported mood swings as they recalled the event that made them angry, and only those who were validated reported a recovery of mood to its initial state.
There was no significant difference found in participants’ negative emotions — a result that speaks to the value of focusing on protecting positivity, said Jennifer Cheavens, senior author of the study and a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.
Harness and nurture positive emotions
“We have underestimated the power of positive emotions. We spend so much time thinking about how to remedy negative emotions, but we don’t spend much time thinking about helping people harness and nurture positive emotions,” Cheavens said.
“It’s really important to help people with their depression, anxiety, and fear, but it’s also important to help people tap into curiosity, love, flexibility, and optimism. People can feel sad and overwhelmed, and also hopeful and curious, in the same general time frame.”
The study was published online in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
Effects of validation and invalidation
The researchers examined the effects of validation and invalidation on what are clinically referred to be positive and negative affect in three trials. According to Cheavens, positive affect refers to feelings and behaviours that make us more open-minded, social, and flexible thinkers. On the other hand, negative affect describes unpleasant feelings and expressions, such as disgust, fear, and despair.
The experiments included 307 undergraduate students in total. At the start and conclusion of the study, as well as at various points throughout the experiments, the students filled out questionnaires evaluating positive and negative affect as well as overall mood.
Researchers asked participants to think and write for five minutes about a time when they felt intense anger, and then verbally describe those experiences to a researcher. Based on randomized assignments, the experimenter either validated or invalidated their angry feelings.
The participants’ experiences with anger covered a wide range: roommate troubles, unfaithful romantic partners, being the victim of a theft, or getting mad at their parents.
Experimenters listening to their stories used flexible scripts to respond. Validating comments included such phrases as “Of course, you’d be angry about that” or “I hear what you’re saying, and I understand you feel angry.”
Invalidating responses ranged from “That doesn’t sound like anger” to “Why would that make you so angry?”
Validated participants’ moods resorted to normal
Results revealed that while thinking and writing about being furious, all participants’ positive mood decreased. However, the validated participants’ positive affect matched or even surpassed their baseline measures once they began explaining the scenario to the experimenters. While conversing with the experimenters, the positive affect scores for individuals who were invalidated did not improve.
In two of the three trials, individuals’ moods continuously deteriorated as they thought about what made them upset, according to five mood indicators. The moods of the validated participants returned to normal, but those of the invalidated students often deteriorated worse.
The research team conducted the studies with plans to apply the results in a therapy setting. But the findings are relevant for relationships as well, Cheavens said.
Validation helps people feel understood
“When you process negative emotions, that negative effect gets turned on. But if someone validates you, it keeps your positive affect buffered. Validation protects people’s effect so they can stay curious in interpersonal interactions and in therapy,” she said.
“Adding validation into therapy helps people feel understood, and when we feel understood we can receive feedback on how we also might change. But it’s not a uniquely clinical thing — often the same ways you make therapy better are ways you make parenting, friendships and romantic relationships better.”
The study was co-authored by Ohio State psychology graduate students Cinthia Benitez (now a clinical psychologist in Seattle) and Kristen Howard.
Materials provided by Ohio State University. Original written by Emily Caldwell. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Cinthia Benitez, Kristen P. Howard, Jennifer S. Cheavens. The effect of validation and invalidation on positive and negative affective experiences. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2020; 1 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1832243
Ohio State University. “The power of validation in helping people stay positive: Supporting someone’s negative emotions can help foster a positive outlook.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 December 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201214123517.htm>.
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