Different people have different methods to overcome negative emotions. Some will go to the mall for retail therapy, others will party their sorrows away, and some will just sit in their room and listen to sad music.
After Pixar’s movie Inside Out came out in 2015, the perspective on how we look at emotions shifted. Whereas we usually see emotions as something that is directly connected to our own being, Pixar shows emotions as something separate from us—they are personified, and can act out of their own volition. The movie has various characters that represent the main character Riley’s emotions, including “Sadness,” “Joy,” Disgust,” “Anger,” and “Fear.”
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, thinking of emotions as people is called “anthropomorphic thinking.” The Pixar movie encouraged the researchers to look into how this kind of thinking could influence the experience of emotions. The expected results of the study were that if people detached themselves from negative emotion, they would feel less sad.
Researcher Li Yang from the University of Texas at Austin said that people who thought of their sadness as a person described them as “a little girl walking slowly with her head down,” “a pale person with no smile,” or “someone with grey hair and sunken eyes.” When participants described their emotions as a person, they became more detached from their sadness.
It was also discovered that by “reducing the intensity of sadness, anthropomorphic thinking has a positive impact on consumers’ self-control performance in subsequent tasks (e.g., choosing a product with more practical features over an alternative with more indulgent features).”
For example, one of the experiments asked participants to write about sad experiences. One group wrote about the sadness as a person and the other group did not. Researchers asked both groups to pick a side dish with their lunch—either cheesecake or salad. It turned out that “the participants who had anthropomorphized sadness were more likely to choose the salad—the healthier option that required more self-control.”
Thinking about negative emotions as people could be very useful. The study “suggests that anthropomorphizing sadness may be a new way to regulate this emotion,” said Yang. “Activating this mindset is a way to help people feel better and resist temptations that may not benefit them in the long-term.”
If you’re trying to gain more self-discipline or just have more sense of control over your emotions, try anthropomorphizing your negative emotions. On the other hand, it is probably not a good idea to do the same for positive emotions. Yang explains that “we do not want to minimize these good feelings.” Detaching ourselves from negative emotions is helpful because we don’t enjoy bad experiences, but we do value positive emotions—so let’s not reduce those.