Making Molehills Out of Mountains

Jackie Gingrich Cushman

7/13/2008 12:01:00 AM - Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Walking down the jet way just in time to catch the plane for the start of our 10-day family vacation, the question came up, which child would sit with which parent. At this particular moment, they both chose Dad.

I feigned hurt feelings, wondering if they could both sit next to him. Our daughter decided she would keep me company. I soon discovered why they wanted to sit next to Dad. He played with them on plane trips, while I normally read a book or worked on my computer.

This revelation lead to my putting up my computer and playing several hands of go fish, most of which I lost. When we changed planes in Salt Lake City, I had become fun enough to sit next to again. I determined that FUN would be the goal for our vacation.

We ran into numerous problems picking up the RV we were planning on driving through Yellowstone for the next 4 days. The goal was being challenged. At one point I thought all was lost when my husband mentioned renting a SUV and camping in a tent, but 5 hours after our plane landed, we were on our way with my husband behind the wheel of a 38-foot RV.

Focusing on fun, and working together had allowed us to overcome obstacles and move forward, literally.

While we often run to friends for fun, solace, advice or simply to unwind, there is recent scientific evidence that friends, or thinking of a positive influence will help make molehills out of mountains, or at least make the mountains a bit more manageable.

The impact of social support, both in person and through thoughts, is the topic of a recent article (Schnall, S. et al., Social support and the perception of geographical slant, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2008.04.011).

In two studies, 76 participants were asked to estimate the slope of a hill. In the first study, a friend accompanied some participants and some were alone. Those who had a friend with them judged the slope to be less steep by 10 percent to 15 percent than did those who were alone. The longevity of the friendship also had an impact. “The longer participants knew their friends, the less steep they estimated the hill to be,” noted the study.

The second study focused on the impact of simply thinking about someone else. Before estimating the slope of a hill, the participants were asked to think of a person: a person of positive influence who would provide support, a neutral person or a person of negative influence. In this study, the participants who thought of a person of positive influence estimated the slope to be lower than did the other participants.

“These results are important, because they indicate that the ability of relationships to be supportive (e.g., long-lasting, close, warm) determined the effects of relationships on the visual perception of a potential physical challenge,” the study notes. “In other words, the very properties that make relationships a psychosocial resource (duration and closeness) apparently explain why relationships moderate perception.”

The study does not try to determine if the impact is due to an increase in feelings of self worth and confidence or possibly even just the human connection. Possibly it is the underlying knowledge that we are not alone in the world that other people care and love us and that, if necessary, will come to our aid and help move us along. Or maybe the addition of a friend simply makes the activity more fun and, after all, who would not want to have more fun?

However, the fact remains that, whatever the cause, Epicurus was right when he said, "It is not so much our friends' help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us."

Armed with the scientific study to back up my actions, I know now, that while there will be more than just the mountains in Yellowstone to deal with on our vacation, knowing we will help each other, and by focusing on fun, those obstacles will be mere speed bumps rapidly run over by our 38-foot RV.