Variety is the Spice of Emotional Life

By Kira M. Newman | December 22, 2014 | 0 comments

A new paper finds that cultivating a diversity of emotions—positive or negative—can make us happier and healthier.

In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, each dwarf has a distinct personality and predominant emotion. There’s Happy, forever joyful and laughing; Grumpy, full of dissent and skepticism; and Bashful, prone to embarrassment and red cheeks. Together, they all have a role to play in Snow White’s life, driving the plot forward and helping her survive.

It turns out Walt Disney was onto something, even 77 years ago. A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by researchers from four countries and six institutions—including Yale University and Harvard Business School—finds that experiencing a variety of emotions may be good for our mental and physical health.

The idea that well-being isn’t about being cheerful all the time and avoiding sadness like the plague isn’t new to happiness researchers. For example, an October 2012 study found that it might be better for our overall happiness to feel emotions like anger at appropriate times, rather than seeking happiness no matter the situation. A famous study by UC Riverside’s Sonja Lyubormisky showed that it might be possible to gratitude-journal too much, losing gratitude’s positive effects in the bore of a routine.

For this new study, the researchers surveyed participants’ tendency for positive emotions (like amusement, awe, and gratitude) and negative ones (like anger, anxiety, and sadness). In particular, they measured the variety and abundance of these emotions—a new concept they call “emodiversity.”

An emodiversity score takes into account how many emotions people experience and how evenly distributed they are. Is there a reason why we have the capacity for so many emotions? Could emodiversity play a role in well-being, beyond simple levels of positive and negative emotion?

Their first study surveyed over 35,000 French speakers and found that emodiversity is linked to less depression. This was the case for all types of emodiversity: positive (experiencing many different positive emotions), negative (many different negative emotions), and general (a mix of both). In fact, people high in emodiversity were less likely to be depressed than people high in positive emotion alone.

Their second study linked emodiversity to better health. In a sample of nearly 1,300 Belgians, the more emodiverse ones had less medication use, lower government health care costs, and fewer doctor visits and days in the hospital. They also had better diet, exercise, and smoking habits. Surprisingly, the effect of emodiversity on physical health was about as strong as the effects of positive or negative emotion alone.

“Emodiversity is a practically important and previously unidentified metric for assessing the health of the human emotional ecosystem,” the authors write.

Emodiversity only accounts for 1% of the variance in depression, so it would be interesting to see future research on its links to subjective well-being and meaning. In the meantime, the promise of better health is a good reason to enrich our emotional lives. How can we do that?

First, take the test on to find out where you stand. Your emodiversity might be low for various reasons—maybe you have trouble identifying your emotions and tend to feel generic things like “happy” or “bad.” Maybe you’ve been taught that it’s not dignified to be joyful, so you limit yourself to feeling content; or that sadness is wimpy, so you stick with anger. Maybe you’ve got it into your head that you’re an anxious person, so all you notice are your anxious feelings.

Whatever the case, cultivating self-awareness and allowing yourself to express your authentic emotions can be beneficial. Branch out of your routine and do something new that might make you feel awe or pride; in tough situations, allow yourself to feel shame or guilt or jealousy rather than what you “should” feel. Snow White and the Seven Identical Dwarfs just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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About The Author

Kira M. Newman is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness, and CaféHappy, a Toronto-based meetup. Follow her on Twitter!


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