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This simple technique can help you help others more effectively

Being optimistic is great, but understanding its limitations can make you a better friend.

This simple technique can help you help others more effectively
[Photo: anyaberkut/iStock]

On those days when you feel good about the world, everything seems like it will work out. Your problems seem smaller, you feel that you’re in control of your destiny, and you’d love to share that feeling with everyone else. After all, when you’re feeling good and you see people around you are struggling with a problem, it’s natural to want to help them.

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When you’re in an optimistic frame of mind, their problems may also seem more tractable than they do to them. It makes sense to want to cheer up your friends and assure them that everything will be okay. When someone’s having a tough time, though, that advice is almost guaranteed to fail.

It isn’t that people dealing with difficulties don’t want help or don’t want advice (though some may not), but rather that you have to start from their vantage point, not yours. It can be hard to get beyond your own good mood to really recognize what someone else is going through. For most of us, the first thing we want from other people is to be understood. On your worst days, you want someone to start by acknowledging that the situation you are in is horrible. Then, you can start trying to dig your way out of it.

Before you start either minimizing someone else’s problems or helping them to solve them, a little validation helps. Start by really listening to how they are feeling in that moment. Acknowledge that on the same day you are feeling like a world-beater, they’re feeling run down.

Even after you have demonstrated that you understand their feelings, you don’t want to get them to start looking on the bright side.

The reason why it won’t be easy to lift someone’s mood is that many people who are feeling down about a situation are focused on problems they are grappling with. When someone is struggling with a problem, they engage avoidance motivation. The motivational system creates feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety in an avoidance mode.

When you’re feeling good, though, there’s often something beautiful or desirable you are pursuing. So you have engaged approach motivation. When you are successfully pursuing a positive outcome, you experience emotions of joy, happiness, and satisfaction.

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It’s a natural reaction to want to share that joy with others. But if someone else feels like there is a threat in their environment, they can’t just flip on their approach motivational system. After all, there is a real problem to be faced. That is, there is no direct path from stress to happiness, because stress reflects avoidance motivation, while happiness reflects approach motivation.

Instead, you can help them by offering your support and assistance to minimize the threat they are facing. Rather than trying to get them to feel happy, start by working to make them feel safe. Only after someone feels like there isn’t something horrible out to get them are they likely to be able to flip to focus on some wonderful or desirable outcome that might make them happy. Meet them motivationally where they are, rather than assuming it is a short path from their stress to your happiness.

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