Forrest Gump said that “life was like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Indeed, life is full of many beautiful and happy moments, but also many challenges – both on and off-stage.
A conductor or colleague who is making your life miserable. A seemingly endless string of auditions where you fail to advance. Injuries. Career stagnation. Relationship or family problems. Illnesses. And other surprises that come out of nowhere.
How are we supposed to deal with all of this?
How do we develop greater mental and emotional resilience and turn lemons into lemonade without becoming one of those people who simply put on a fake cheerful facade?
Learning how to manage our emotions is one of the key skills that top performers and highly resilient people have developed.
It doesn’t mean we have to turn into some sort of emotionless robot, ignoring our emotions, pretending they don’t exist, or trying to squash them (doing so is actually associated with poorer wellbeing and psychological functioning).
It just means learning how to navigate difficult times, manage stress effectively, and not erupt in tears and have a screaming fit like we did when we were 5 years old and our brother wouldn’t share his Halloween candy.
As infants, we relied on strategies like rocking ourselves, sucking our thumb, chewing on things, or simply distancing ourselves from things that upset us.
Though we may sometimes wish we could go back to those simpler times, we gain access to more sophisticated stress management techniques as we move beyond toddlerhood.
One of the more effective strategies available to us is called “cognitive reappraisal,” which has been associated with better psychological health (i.e. less depression) in a number of studies.
Cognitive reappraisal is just a fancy term for the time-tested advice grandma shared with us, better known as the “silver lining” or “look on the bright side” approach.
Situation #1: Got a flat tire in the rain? That bites, but on the bright side, everyone is safe and unharmed, and fortunately the spare has air in it.
Situation #2: Got singled out in orchestra for not playing up to the conductor’s standards? Whew, that’s always rough, but doesn’t necessarily mean the conductor hates you. Maybe it means that they see potential in you, and you need to work harder/smarter/try new approaches to rise to the challenge.
The idea is to make a tiny shift in how we see the situation, so that we naturally experience a different emotional reaction. Ideally, one that is more adaptive and helps us handle the situation more effectively.
In situation #1, reappraisal might help us respond by being more grateful about the safety of our family, rather than muttering about being soaking wet, having to buy a new tire, and bringing everyone’s mood down with our crankiness.
In situation #2, reappraisal might help us respond by redoubling our efforts, recommitting to working on our technique, preparing more thoroughly for rehearsal, etc., versus complaining about how unfair the conductor is, and grumbling backstage with others.
If there’s a part of you that isn’t 100% sold on this technique, your instincts are right on. As it turns out, looking on the bright side can sometimes make us feel worse.
When cognitive reappraisal can backfire
A recent study found that looking on the bright side can be counterproductive in certain situations.
Researchers studied 170 people who had experienced at least one stressful life event in the past couple months.
They looked at the severity of participants’ life stressors, how controllable these stressors were, their level of depression, and how skilled they were at the cognitive reappraisal technique.
After crunching the numbers, they found something rather interesting.
Participants who experienced high levels of uncontrollable stress (like chronic pain, illness, loss of loved one) but were good at seeing things in a more positive light, were less depressed (or happier, if we want to look on the bright side).
On the other hand, participants who experienced high levels of controllable stress (like worrying about tenure because of poor job performance) and were good at finding the silver lining in situations, were actually more depressed.
Does this surprise you? Or does it actually make a lot of sense?
When feeling bad can be good
The authors of the study note that negative emotions can sometimes be adaptive in that they motivate us to take action and solve the problem we are facing.
So if we are facing a stressful situation that we have some control over, putting a positive spin on things could make us feel better – but in doing so, make it less likely that we take action.
We might feel better after deciding that the conductor is a cranky old meanie with a grudge, but feeling better might leave us less motivated to put in the work we need. And if we fail to challenge and push ourselves, we could fail to get tenure, and end up feeling even worse than before.
Do you remember when Michael Jordan “un-retired” 17 games before the 1995 playoffs? He still played great, but was not quite himself, and the Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic in six games.
In interviews following the series loss, Jordan vowed to train even harder in the offseason and prove that he still had what it takes to win a championship.
The next season, Jordan led the Bulls to the best record in league history, and took home the next three NBA championships.
The next time we experience a stressful situation, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to make ourselves feel better by reframing the situation, but first ask how controllable the situation is.
Is there something we can do to make things better? Even if it seems small?
If the answer is yes, then perhaps problem solving and taking action should be the first step.
On the other hand, if there’s not much we can do to change the situation, then it may be time to change our perspective on the situation. To change how we see and feel about the situation, so we can remain resilient even in the midst of a particularly difficult patch of our journey.
The one-sentence summary
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald