According to a new study, people who experience a greater variety of positive feelings show lower inflammation.
How often do you feel happy, enthusiastic, amused, inspired, or calm on a given day? For more than a decade, researchers have been uncovering a link between positive emotions and better health, particularly for women.
But there’s a catch. Beyond how much positive emotion we feel, more recent research has found that variety matters as well. For example, people who experience a greater variety of positive emotions may be less depressed, healthier, and better able to cope with negative events.
A new study took a first look at the biological processes that may be underlying some of these benefits—specifically, how variety in our emotional life relates to inflammation, a major risk factor for disease and death.
For a month, researchers asked a group of 175 American adults (ages 40-65) to answer nightly surveys. They reported how much they experienced 32 different positive and negative emotions each day, ranging from cheerful and relaxed to afraid, upset, nervous, and irritable. Six months later, participants had their blood drawn and analyzed for proteins that mark inflammation in the body: interleukin-6, C-reactive protein, and fibrinogen.
Researchers represented the variety in participants’ feelings as an “emodiversity” score, a measure of how many different feelings they experienced and how evenly distributed they were. Each participant got a score for positive and negative emodiversity—the variety of their positive or negative emotions, respectively.
The result? Ultimately, people who reported a greater variety of positive emotions showed lower inflammation in their bodies. This wasn’t simply because they felt more positive or less negative overall. In addition, demographic and personality traits like age, gender, or extraversion levels didn’t seem to matter. It was more emodiversity that was associated with less inflammation.
“The findings add to the evidence that positive [emotional] states are related to favorable profiles of biological functioning that may contribute to reduced risk of chronic disease,” the researchers write.
Contrary to a prior study, this study didn’t find any health benefits among participants with greater negative emodiversity. People with more variety in their negative emotions—who felt everything from ashamed to distressed to jittery, rather than just “sad” or “upset” a lot—did not show lower inflammation.
This might have to do with differences in the surveys, the researchers speculated, or differences between that study’s younger Europeans and this study’s older Americans. More research could be done to resolve this discrepancy, and to explore other biological factors (besides inflammation) that might link positive emodiversity to health.
But it makes sense that having a more diverse repertoire of positive emotions would be healthy, says Anthony Ong, a professor at Cornell University and lead author of the paper. Different emotions may be better suited to different contexts—a work lunch, a football game, a meditation class—and we may fare better in these situations if our emotional life is more flexible.
In addition, simply being able to differentiate the positive emotions we already feel, rather than just feeling “good” or “happy” all the time, can give us more information about ourselves. Maybe we start to realize that any excitement we feel is short-lived, while inspiring activities put us in a good mood all day long. Ong recommends cultivating emotional self-awareness by spending some time each day to label and categorize the positive emotions you felt recently.
Doing that might benefit your health—and, at the very least, it’ll give you a more interesting answer to the question “How was your day?”
About the Author
Kira M. Newman is the managing editor of Greater Good. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness.