But why does this work?
One possibility is that talking to other people about your problems helps you to externalize those problems and that makes you feel better. Another possibility is that there is something in the interactions that changes the way you think about problems you face.
A fascinating paper by Bruce Dore, Robert Morris, Daisy Burr, Rosalind Picard, and Kevin Ochsner in the May 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored this issue in an interesting way.
Participants were assigned to one of two web-based applications. One application asked participants to do some expressive writing about difficulties they face. Research by Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues suggests that writing about traumatic events can lead to better mental health in the long run. Any benefits of interacting with other people needs to go beyond just the benefits of expressing a difficulty.
The other participants took place in a social networking application in which they could post problems they were experiencing. In addition, they could view problems posted by other people. After reading other people’s posts, they could send messages of encouragement.
However, the application was also designed to get people to send messages of reappraisal. A reappraisal is when you take an issue and find another way to look at it that helps see that it may not be as bad as it seems to be. Many cognitive and behavioral therapies for depression and anxiety try to teach people to reappraise the problems they experience that are at the root of their symptoms.
Participants spent three weeks on the app they were assigned to. At the start and finish of the study, participants rated their degree of negative feelings, and symptoms of depression. In addition, participants answered questions to assess how often they used reappraisal as a strategy to deal with their problems.
In this study, just writing about problems did not affect people’s depression or negative mood. In addition, the number of times people posted about their own problems did not affect depression and mood.
Of interest, the more often people responded to other people with messages encouraging them to reappraise—that is to think about their problems in a different way—the more that they themselves experienced reduced symptoms of depression and elevated mood. That is, helping others had a benefit for the helper.
Other analysis found that this improvement in mood is related to changes in people’s degree of reappraisal during the study. That is, participants who helped other people to reappraise began to use that strategy for themselves, and that had a positive impact on their mood and level of depression.
The authors also did an interesting analysis of the language used by people. When helping others, it is possible to talk about your own experiences (in which case you use first-person pronouns (like I and we). You can also focus on the other person’s problems, in which case you often use second-person pronouns (you). The change in levels of reappraisal was related to how often people used second-person pronouns (you) in their comments to other people. So, focusing on how to help other people reappraise their situation also influenced people’s own strategies.
Of course, any study like this needs to be treated with some caution. Participants were free to use the social network app in any way they wanted, so it is possible that something about the participants affected how often they wanted to help others, which in turn predicted improvement in mood and symptoms of depression.
Still, the entire pattern of results suggests that we can improve our own strategies for dealing with difficult situations by helping others to do the same.
Dore, B.P., Morris, R.R., Burr, D.A., Picard, R.W., Ochnser. K.N. (2017). Helping others regulate emotion predicts increased regulation of one's own emotions and decreased symptoms of depression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(5), 729-739