Feeling blue? When sadness strikes, simply imagining it as a person can make the emotion feel less intense, a recent study has found.
The authors were inspired by the movie "Inside Out," Pixar's 2015 animated hit that showed five bickering emotions — Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness — coming to life inside a girl’s head. Sadness had blue skin, blue hair, a slumped posture and an alarming urge to cry in most any situation.
The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, began with an experiment that asked 114 participants to think about a time when they felt very sad, such as after the death of a loved one. Researchers then randomly assigned half of them to write down what kind of person their sadness would be like if it came to life — or “who” it was. The other half was asked to write about “what” it was, or how it affected their state of mind.
After the exercise, all of the participants rated how much sadness they felt at that moment on a scale of one to seven. The results showed those who thought about their sorrow as a person reported feeling less intensely sad than the other participants.
The technique allows people to “think of an emotion as a person who is separate from themselves, which makes them feel more detached from the sadness," said study co-author Li Yang, a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, in a statement.
Those who envisioned their blues as a person described it like “a little girl walking slowly with her head down,” “a pale person with no smile” or “someone with grey hair and sunken eyes,” Yang noted.
Another benefit of this technique, the study said: People who thought of their sorrow as a person had better self-control afterwards. When asked to choose between a theoretical salad or cheesecake, for example, they were more likely to pick the healthier option than the other participants.
Previous research has shown sadness usually leads people to “focus on the short term and a desire for urgent reward."
The findings made sense to Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, who found people who talk to themselves in the third person, using their own first names or he/she/they, can also soothe their anxiety.
“It gives us this distance, it gives us this perspective as though we’re looking at either someone else or something else,” Moser, who was not involved in the new study, told TODAY.
“You take control over it," he said, "(and) it enables you to see what’s going on, to feel like it’s not happening to you, to think about it differently.”
However, although distancing techniques may be helpful for generally healthy people who feel some sadness, it’s not clear how well they would work for people diagnosed with depression, Moser cautioned.
For happiness, it may be best not to imagine it as a person. The new study showed people who applied the detachment technique to their feelings of joy felt less content.
"It's probably not wise to apply this strategy for positive emotions because we do not want to minimize these good feelings," Yang said.