There are plenty of negative, bitter thoughts to go around — even, or maybe especially, during the holidays.
Some worries may be personal. Others may carry the weight of the world. Several recent experiments show the different ways we might cope with some thoughts that nag us.
In one approach, reported last month by a psychologist at Ohio State University working with a group of Spanish colleagues, the simple act of throwing away a piece of paper with a thought written on it helped shed that concern.
In a series of experiments with high school students, those who "threw away" notes about their thoughts did not appear to consider those thoughts in later evaluations, while those who hung onto their notes did. This held true even when thoughts were written down on a computer word processor and then either sent to the recycle bin or stored on a disk.
"At some level, it can sound silly," OSU professor Richard Petty said in a written statement about the study. "But we found that it really works: By physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you end up influencing how you end up using those thoughts."
The study was published online in the journal Psychological Science.
Last July, in a report published in the same journal, researchers at the University of Kansas found that the old adage that we should just "grin and bear it" also holds some truth — smiling facilitates recovery from stress.
The test involved 169 university students who were given a bit of smile basic training — holding chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that produces a neutral expression, a "standard" smile using only the facial muscle around the mouth, or a "genuine" smile that engages muscles around both the mouth and eyes. Half were explicitly told to smile.
Then, while holding those same chopstick poses, the students were asked to engage in a couple of stress-inducing tasks (a difficult drawing assignment and keeping a hand immersed in ice water) while researchers gauged heart rates and self-reported stress levels.
Compared to those who held neutral expressions, participants who smiled — and particularly those who, when instructed, gave genuine smiles — had lower heart rates after stopping the stressful activity.
So, if you can crack a genuine smile during some of life's more annoying events — like a traffic jam or useless meeting at the office — the researchers suggest it might help you both psychologically and physically.
But another smile study done by Stanford University researchers in 2010 found that always showing a sunny side may tend to make others feel they're the only ones with emotional struggles.
The research, based on surveys of college students, grew out of observations of Facebook pages that suggested people might appear happier than they really are.
Sure enough, students said their negative emotions were nearly twice as likely to occur or be expressed in private and were three times more likely to be hidden from others.
Another set of questions found that most participants underestimated the negative feelings of peers and overestimated the prevalence of positive emotions most of the time, even among people they considered close friends.
The impact was underscored in a third study that found people who sensed less sadness in their peers said they were lonelier and spend more time brooding over their own problems. Those who thought their peers had mostly positive experiences were less satisfied with their own lives.
The researchers concluded in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that people might be happier overall if they occasionally share a cry with a friend rather than always putting a rosy spin on their lives.