"This is such a bummer." Everyone has been there before. It's part of life to have challenging experiences that can get you feeling down. At times like this, you might try to change your mindset, reminding yourself that it won't last forever or to focus on the bright side. Changing how you think about emotional events in this way can change how you feel about them. But sometimes this is easier said than done.

Imagine you lost a dream opportunity. You may wonder whether you'll ever get another chance like that again. It can be difficult to break out of your own mindset when having these types of negative experiences. Luckily, you don't always have to go it alone. Getting another person's perspective—like a good friend's—can help. They might say that "this loss does not define you" and "you'll get another chance," helping you see things differently and feel better.

Even though social interactions like these are a key part of everyday emotional experiences, we know very little about how exactly people regulate each other's emotions. So, my colleagues and I wondered: Is getting a friend's perspective when trying to rethink a negative event more powerful than rethinking it on your own?

Studying Emotion Regulation in Friend Pairs

This question inspired a series of studies on emotion regulation in friendships by our research team at the University of California Los Angeles. There are many ways to regulate emotions, but we decided to focus on one particularly effective approach: changing how one thinks about emotional events to change how one feels about them—known as "cognitive reappraisal."

In traditional cognitive reappraisal tasks, people either "look" at or "reinterpret" the content of images and then rate their emotional responses. To get at how other people can help change how one thinks about emotional events, we created a "social reappraisal" task. This task was the same as the cognitive reappraisal task, except that instead of reinterpreting the content of images alone, participants would "listen" to an audio recording of their close friend reinterpreting the images.

In three experiments involving 200 UCLA students, we used cognitive and social reappraisal tasks to test whether people felt better when getting help from a friend to reinterpret the images (social reappraisal), as compared to when they reinterpreted on their own (cognitive reappraisal).

We found that social reappraisal was more effective at regulating negative emotion than cognitive reappraisal. We also ruled out some alternative explanations for this finding, showing that friends didn't offer better reinterpretations than those that participants came up with on their own, and that our finding wasn't simply due to hearing a friend's voice. In other words, social support specifically improved reappraisal outcomes.

This work shows that friends' perspectives can change how people think and feel about things in the moment, but it's important to remember that friends are not always going to be around to help. Do the perspectives they offer "stick," potentially making it easier to confront similar emotional events in the future when friends aren't around? To explore this question, we conducted one more study.

Lingering Effects of Support From Friends

We used the same reappraisal tasks described earlier, but this time we added a follow-up task one day later. In this follow-up task, people rapidly viewed and rated the images they saw in the lab again, including images they had reappraised on their own, images they reappraised with help from their friend, and images they did not reappraise the day before. This allowed us to test whether support from friends lingered to shape how people responded to the images later when they were alone.

We found that negative emotion was lowest in response to images that were previously reappraised with help from the friend.  This was true both in the moment when actively receiving support and the next day when they were alone. When thinking about their experience, participants said things like: "Some images were not as bad to see again because I heard my friend's voice reinterpreting a lot of them in my head." The friends' reinterpretations of the images seem to have "stuck"—making it easier to confront those same images again independently.

Take-home Message

Getting a friend's perspective can powerfully shape how you think and feel, both in the moment and over time as you internalize the support you receive. And this type of "social emotion regulation" can be more effective than trying to regulate on your own. So next time you're wondering why you can't break out of your negative thought patterns, remember that humans are fundamentally social creatures. It's okay to turn to the people around you to get a new perspective, and to help your friends in the same way. After all, we all get by with a little help from our friends.

For Further Reading

Sahi, R. S., Gaines, E. M., Nussbaum, S. G., Lee, D., Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., & Silvers, J. A. (2023). You changed my mind: Immediate and enduring impacts of social emotion regulation. Emotion. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0001284

Sahi, R. S., Ninova, E., & Silvers, J. A. (2021). With a little help from my friends: Selective social potentiation of emotion regulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 150(6), 1237. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000853

Petrova, K., & Gross, J. J. (2023). The future of emotion regulation research: Broadening our field of view. Affective Science, 4(4), 609-616. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42761-023-00222-0

Razia Sahi is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Department of Psychology at Princeton University studying how people regulate each other’s emotions.