Look on the bright side

Try this mental technique to make your life better

Silver linings can benefit the brain.

The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Colloquially, it’s expressed in a number of phrases: the bright side, the blue sky. In the world of psychology, it’s known as cognitive reappraisal. In many ways, it’s all the same — each involves the search for a new perspective.

It’s also one element of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and one of the most common strategies of emotional regulation. Even if you haven’t encountered it in therapy, you’ve probably encountered it in your life.

“Think about the last time something happened in your life that was difficult to handle,” instructs Claudia Haase, an assistant professor at Northwestern University. “How did you try to deal with it? Did you try to find the silver lining?”

If so, you used cognitive reappraisal. Haase recently co-authored a study on cognitive reappraisal and how it affects a certain type of anxiety. Reappraisal is known to lower anxiety in general so Haase, along with authors Emily Hittner and Katie Rim, decided to examine how it affects economic anxiety. They found that when people in lower socioeconomic groups used reappraisal strategies, they became less anxious. Furthermore, using this strategy resulted in long-term decreased anxiety.

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Cognitive reappraisal involves a search for a new perspective.

Interestingly, this result didn’t hold up when it came to people with higher incomes, which brings up the question: What’s in your power to actually change? People who make more money, the team reasoned, likely have more control over their environment. It probably made more sense to them to try to change the situation than the way they were thinking about the situation.

In turn, it seems like cognitive reappraisal is best utilized when the way you’re thinking about things is by what is in the way of your success. Hittner, a Ph.D. candidate, uses a breakup as an example.

“After a romantic breakup, you might be afraid of being lonely,” Hittner says. “You could use cognitive reappraisal to manage this fear by telling yourself that now is a great time to get to know yourself better, discover new passions, rekindle old friendships, and have space to find a more fulfilling relationship.”

When cognitive reappraisal is used as a strategy to deal with negative emotions, it often makes life better. Studies suggest that it is associated with reductions in depression, anxiety, and negative mood, as well as increases in life satisfaction.

Successful reappraisal is also associated with increased activity in the brain’s amygdala and decreased activity in the prefrontal regions. This correlates to a boost to the brain’s emotional processing center and ease in the part of the brain that’s implicated when we think about ourselves.

And if you’re having trouble motivating yourself to see a situation differently, it’s okay to look to others for some inspiration.

“If you look at books, poems, movies, or songs — these are often full of examples of how to see the world in a different light,” Hittner says. “Last but not least, the people around us — our loved ones, friends, good teachers, and mentors — can help us see things differently.”

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