“Don’t they realize that if I could, I would?” explained my exasperated patient who was sick and tired of being told by friends to look on the bright side.
While well-intended, telling someone to think positive is rarely helpful. Maintaining a sunny outlook is not something most people can do on command. At best, it is useless advice. At worst, it can make them feel even worse.
If you’re trying to boost a friend’s spirits, instead of recommending a better attitude, suggest they do something that reflects their values. According to research, engaging in a meaningful activity is one of the most reliable ways to stay strong when feeling stressed out. Plus, it’s more accessible than trying to switch the narrative in one’s head.
There is evidence that engaging in meaningful activities can reduce symptoms of depression. A recent study found that people who spent time during lockdown doing things that were important to them felt more fulfilled and less stressed out than those who spent their days immersed in mindless and passive activities. For instance, having a virtual dinner with friends was a more satisfying and enduringly positive experience than reclining on the couch binge-watching Tiger King.
What makes an activity a meaningful activity?
If you can readily answer “yes” to the question: “Does this reflect what I truly care about?”, you’re on the right track.
Of course, meaningfulness is in the eye of the beholder. Making sourdough bread so you can show it off on TikTok is different from making sourdough bread because you love to bake.
It is worth pointing out that there is a difference between feeling happy and experiencing meaningfulness. Activities that make us happy in the moment typically require little effort or input and are self-focused. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, is linked to doing things that express one’s values and in doing things for others. Put simply, happiness is linked to being a taker whereas meaningfulness is linked to being a giver.
If you really want to give yourself a boost, contribute to something beyond yourself.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman