Personal Health

Do the Opposite of What You Think You Should Do for a Depressed Friend

New study says trying to cheer people up does more harm than good.

Photo Credit: Anton Gvozdikov/

Trying to cheer a depressed friend up might leave you both worse off than you started.

According to a new study coming out in the Journal of Personality and SocialPsychology, the last thing that someone who feels low wants to hear is uplifting tales. "Those with low self-esteem actually reject the so-called 'positive reframing,' or expressions of optimism and encouragement, most of us offer to them," Dr. Denise Marigold, the lead author of the study, told "What we think is well-intentioned support is really alienating for them. They feel as if people don't understand their issues and don't accept their feelings. It almost demonstrates a lack of caring."

The study looked at 1,000 people between the ages of 18 and 30 in six different scenarios. It tested the effects of “positively reframing” and “negatively validating” the problems of young adults with high and low self-esteem. Positive re-framing, in case you are wondering, consists of “reassurances that the negative event is ultimately beneficial to the recipient’s growth, that improvement is very likely, and that the problem is minor and ultimately insignificant.” Perhaps you can already see the problem with saying that to someone, although it is understandable, since many people are just uncomfortable with negative emotions.

Negative validation, the study explains, “communicate[s] that the feelings, actions, or responses of the recipient are normal and appropriate to the situation” and “express[es] appreciation for the recipient’s predicament or for the difficulty of the situation.” 

Negative validation won. People with low self esteem felt more affirmed and supported by just being heard and validated. They did not want to look on the bright side. So, practice saying, "It's normal and okay for you to feel sad. That's really hard."

If you just can't help yourself from offering the optimistic view, better to leave your depressed friend alone to wallow in their misery. This approach also has the side benefit for you. The researchers found that people who try to cheer a friend up and fail end up feeling worse about themselves, too.

But remember, if you do end up feeling sadder, it's normal to feel sad sometimes. (See how we just validated your feelings?)