All of the Feelings: Emotional Diversity Linked to Health

Emerging research shows experiencing a range of emotions can improve well-being.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

 CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Joy. Enthusiasm. Pride. Happiness. Gratitude. Interest. Content. Awe. Serenity. Amusement.

Experiencing any one of these emotions would lead most people to feel like they had a good day. Experiencing several of them in a single day would be fantastic, and for more reasons than one: A growing body of research has demonstrated that feeling a wide range of positive emotions in a single day is linked to health and well-being.

Two years ago, researchers from France, Spain, the United States, and England took a careful look at this topic. In their initial study, they surveyed more than 35,000 participants from France to find out how often they experienced 20 distinct emotions — 10 positive emotions and 10 negative emotions — and then assessed whether participants showed signs of depression.

They found that participants with greater emodiversity — i.e., those who experienced a broader range of emotions — were less likely to experience symptoms of depression. This held true for data analyses of only positive emotions; only negative emotions; and all emotions combined. 

In a second study, the researchers sought to find out whether emodiversity is also connected to physical health. They surveyed 10,000 Belgian adults to find out the range of emotions they experienced each day, and then obtained health information from Belgium’s health insurance service, including how often participants visited the doctor, how often they stayed overnight in the hospital, and how many prescription medications they took. They also surveyed participants about their nutrition, exercise habits, and smoking behavior.

The researchers found that experiencing a diversity of emotions was a strong predictor of health. People who experienced a variety of emotions — positive or negative — visited the doctor less frequently, spent less time in the hospital, and required fewer medications.

Anthony Ong, a professor of human development at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, used a novel analytic approach to connect emodiversity with biomarkers for inflammation in the body.

Ong followed 175 people, age 40 to 65, who reported their emotions on a daily survey for 30 days. At the end of each day, participants recorded whether they had experienced 16 positive emotions that day, including interest, excitement, inspiration, alertness, and calm. They also recorded whether they experienced any of 16 negative emotions, including fear, upset, distress, jitteriness, nervousness, and shame.

Six months later, participants underwent blood tests for three inflammation markers. The study focused on inflammation, because it can be measured noninvasively through blood tests, and it is related to a wide range of health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and bone and joint problems.

The study found that participants who experienced a broader range of positive emotions had lower levels of inflammation compared to those who experienced fewer positive emotions. The participants’ range of negative emotions — regardless of whether it was narrow or wide — had no effect on inflammation.

“It may be that experiencing a diversity of emotional states — in this case, positive emotions — might strengthen one’s resilience by preventing an overabundance or prolonging of any one emotion from dominating an individual's emotional life,” Ong explained.

"What do we know about human well-being? The answer is surprisingly little, compared with what is known about human illness, dysfunction, and disease,” Ong said. “But research has consistently shown that when our positive emotions are in ample supply, we take off and become generative, resilient versions of ourselves.

“The main contribution of this paper is that there are many kinds of happiness, and that experiencing an abundance of different types of positive emotions in daily life may be beneficial to health,” he continued.

“There is a simple way to put this into practice in your daily life: Notice when you are experiencing a positive emotion and tag or label it. When you recognize and label a positive emotion, it may help you experience more varied positive emotions throughout the rest of your day,” he said. “And that, in turn, could improve your health.”

The take-home message: Focusing on being aware of your feelings could lead to significant improvements in your health and well-being.