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Personality

How Well Do You Bounce Back from an Upsetting Experience?

New research shows the role of personality in overcoming a negative experience.

Key points

  • When you've experienced a negative event, it can be difficult to recover your equilibrium.
  • New research shows how the effect of a daily event on well-being depends on personality.
  • It's possible to turn a negative into a positive event if you just take the right approach.

Although you may think of yourself as a resilient person, some experiences can test that inner strength. You’d like to be able to move on as if nothing happened, but the truth is that the sting sticks around in your mind and you can’t make it go away. Perhaps you’re part of a volunteer committee or work-related team in which you are one of the older individuals present. Someone suggests that when it comes to picking leadership, it’s time for “new blood.” “Wow,” you think, “does that mean my blood is old?” For the next several days, you question your self-worth, feel that maybe it is time for you to step back from things, and feel self-conscious whenever you’re with that group of people.

By contrast, you have a friend who you think has gone through a pretty bad experience themselves. This person submitted an entry for a competitive event and just received feedback from the judges. To you, the wording of this feedback was unduly harsh and unfair. However, your friend seems undaunted. “This will help me the next time,” they say, “I can definitely learn from the experience.” You’re impressed by this mature and open-minded reaction, and you wonder if you would respond the same way in a similar situation.

The ability to recover from a potentially negative experience involves a set of complex personal qualities and perspectives. Positive experiences are definitely easier to take, but they don't necessarily produce a universal reaction. Have you ever received a compliment that you felt was too kind? Did you wonder if you really deserved such favorable treatment?

Personality and People’s Responses to Day-to-Day Experiences

According to University of British Columbia’s Patrick Klaiber and colleagues (2021), personality plays a key role in the way people interpret and respond to their experiences. Based on previous research, they point out that the personality trait of neuroticism is consistently linked to greater exposure to daily stressors (i.e., more frequent stressors) and higher stressor-related negative affect” (p. 1). This means that not only do people who are anxious and tend to look at the gloomy side of life have more negative experiences on a daily basis, but they also react more poorly to those experiences. Thinking about yourself, although you wouldn’t say you’re particularly neurotic, that “new blood” comment is something you can't shake off.

Wouldn't it be nice if there a way to turn your negative interpretation of that experience into one that could stimulate growth? Thinking about your friend after receiving an unkind review of their work, you wonder if you could you figure out a way to do the same with this equally insensitive comment.

As Klaiber et al. point out, researchers working in the area of personality and daily stressors regard negative events in terms of “exposure,” and positive events in terms of “engagement.” This distinction is based on the idea that you don’t seek out negative events, which happen “to” you, but that you do seek out positive events, in which you are actively involved “in acquiring emotional benefits from these events” (p. 2). However, is there a way to turn an event that occurs outside of your own volition into one in which you do become actively engaged? Can you squeeze something useful, if not uplifting, from what was an event that you didn’t seek to have happen?

You can learn how this process might work from the approach that the UBC authors take in their study. Rather than asking people in general how stressed or engaged they feel, the research team used what’s called the “daily diary” method in which data are collected in real time over the course of a specified period. Events are reported as they happen, and information from these events is compared to personality questionnaire scores. This fine-grained approach allows researchers to study the ebb and flow of people’s reactions to their experiences in relationship to overall personality traits.

The data used in the Klaiber et al. study came from a nationally representative sample of adults known as the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS) with participants ranging from their 20s to their 80s. A subset of 2800 agreed to take part in the daily diary component of the research. The focus of this portion of MIDUS was on how people react to events that the researchers defined as positive in nature. Even so, these findings can inform the question of what personality traits you can work on to facilitate your ability to construe a potentially negative event into one with positive ramifications for your well-being.

Testing Personality’s Role in Responses to Daily Events

The MIDUS personality measure was based on the Five Factor Model, with 3-item rating scales used to assess each factor. See how you would rate yourself on each of these using a scale of from 1 (a lot) to 4 (not at all):

Extraversion: outgoing, friendly, lively

Agreeableness: helpful, warm, caring

Neuroticism: moody, worrying nervous

Openness to experience: creative, intelligent, imaginative

Conscientiousness: organized, responsible, hardworking

The daily diary portion of the study produced evidence for a relatively high proportion of days in which something positive occurred (65-72%). To find out how people reacted to these events, the MIDUS research team asked participants to rate their affect or mood with positive items such as “cheerful, extremely happy, calm and peaceful” and negative items that included “restless or fidgety, worthless, hopeless.” As you can see, then, it’s possible from a theoretical point of view to react negatively to an event that people themselves label as positive in nature.

Turning to the findings, the authors reported that personality indeed predicted reactions to daily events in a systematic fashion. People high in extraversion reported feeling more proud, those high in conscientiousness stated that they felt closer to other people, the highly open individuals were more surprised, and those high in agreeableness reported feeling pleasant, calm, and proud. What would be interesting from a theoretical point of view is how those high in neuroticism responded when something good happened to them. Would they also feel better?

You might expect the highly neurotic to worry, as part of their chronic tendency to fret, and therefore have difficulty interpreting an event that goes against their overall negative world view. However, the study's findings showed that it was the neurotic who instead seemed to show the biggest boost compared to their more sanguine peers. As the authors suggest: “People high in Neuroticism might have more ‘room’ on the positive affect scale to differentiate between days with and without positive events” (p. 11).

Interestingly, in one of the sub-analyses, it turned out that people high in agreeableness actually reported feeling worse, not better, after a positive event. To interpret that last, counter-intuitive finding, the authors provided this explanation: “It is possible that people higher in Agreeableness had more ambivalent thoughts and emotions during positive events, such as concern about others’ enjoyment” (p. 11).

Clearly, then, a positive event isn’t uniformly positive in terms of its emotional impact across people with varying personalities. This suggests that beyond personality, there are other factors that come into play.

Turning Your Negative into Positive Events

If even positive events don’t have consistent effects on mood but instead vary by personality, what does this mean for negative events? Is it possible that a negative event could have a positive impact on you, if only you learn to change your interpretation of it?

Decades of research in cognitive behavioral approaches to stress, mood, and life events suggest that there is nothing inherent in an event that defines it as negative or positive. The researchers in the MIDUS study pre-defined events according to their valence but, in reality, you can idiosyncratically define events in whatever way you choose.

Returning to the example of the “new blood” comment, this logic would suggest that you could find a way not to let it reinforce your own worries and anxieties about yourself and your age, but instead see it as a situation in which people feel comfortable enough around you to bring up this sensitive topic. Similarly, your friend’s ability to view criticism as constructive feedback suggests that having a flaw pointed out (when the flaw is indeed there) doesn’t have to be a condemnation of an individual’s abilities. Knowing that you do have a tendency to be overly sensitive to criticism could be of great value, then, as you seek “room” in your own mood to turn a negative into a positive event.

To sum up, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that negative events should be avoided at all costs rather than to see the value in balancing the negative with the positive. Fulfillment can come not only from the events that enhance your sense of self-worth, but also from those that challenge it.

References

Klaiber, P., Wen, J. H., Ong, A. D., Almeida, D. M., & Sin, N. L. (2021). Personality differences in the occurrence and affective correlates of daily positive events. Journal of Personality. https:/doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12676

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