Happiness may be a state of mind, but it’s also a state of body. We already know that stress is bad for our health, and in recent years, a growing collection of research has taken things a step further, suggesting that beyond a simple lack of stress, it’s happiness that holds the key to health. The emotion doesn’t just make life more pleasant, studies have found; happier people feel better and live longer, too.
Well, maybe. In a new study published in the journal Emotion, a team of researchers made the case that happiness is hogging more than its fair share of the attention as the emotion most strongly connected to a healthier body. Rather, the study authors found, the ability to feel a wide range of positive emotions — what they termed “emotional diversity,” or “emodiversity” — may be the link to better health.
Lead author Anthony Ong, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, compares our emotional landscape to an ecosystem: “Emodiversity draws from research in the natural sciences on the benefits of biodiversity,” he says. An environment is healthier when various species all serve their own functional roles, and suffers when any one species is depleted or becomes overabundant, throwing off the balance. Similarly, he explains, emotions serve functional roles for people, helping them prioritize and regulate behavior to adapt to a given situation.
From a scientific standpoint, the biological processes that allow our emotional experiences to influence our health outcomes still aren’t very well understood. This latest study focused on one potential pathway: systematic inflammation, an immune response that’s been linked to chronic diseases like diabetes and osteoporosis, as well as increased risk of premature death.
Ong and his colleagues recruited 175 participants between the ages of 40 to 65 and asked them to keep a log of their emotions for 30 days. Each evening, participants rated the extent to which they had experienced 16 positive emotions that day — happiness was one of them, but the list also included enthusiasm, determination, pride, inspiration, and strength, among others. They also recorded any negative emotions they’d felt that day, like sadness, anger, shame, and guilt. Emodiversity was measured by the number of different emotions a person felt, as well as the overall distribution and the number of times each emotion was experienced. (“Specifically, low emodiversity is characterized by emotional experiences that are relatively homogeneous and concentrated in a few emotion categories,” Ong explains, “whereas high emodiversity reflects emotional experiences that are relatively diverse and distributed more evenly across categories.”)
Participants also had their blood drawn at two different points, once at the beginning of the 30-day study period and again six months later. When the researchers analyzed the blood samples for three different markers of inflammation, they found that the people with the lowest rates of inflammation were the same ones who reported a wide range of positive emotions.
“The results of this study are not surprising,” says Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist based in New York who isn’t affiliated with the study. “There is more and more evidence emerging that our emotional states affect our physical well-being.”
One finding did catch the researchers off guard: Diversity only mattered when it came to positive emotions. The participants’ range of negative emotions had no effect on inflammation, and neither did their ratio of positive-to-negative emotions. The findings, the researchers conclude, highlight the unique role daily positive emotions play in biological health.
But don’t be too quick to discount our negative emotions and the role that overall emodiversity has on our health outcomes. Ong acknowledges that the findings from his study were limited to middle-aged individuals from a single geographic area and need to be replicated in larger, more culturally diverse samples. Meanwhile, in a set of previous studies involving more than 37,000 participants, a team of researchers found that greater overall emodiversity — not just positive emodiversity — was associated with better mental and physical health. The first study, which surveyed more than 35,000 people, found that people high in overall emodiversity were less likely to be depressed than those who were high in positive emotions alone. And the second study, which sampled 1,300 people, found that higher overall emodiversity was linked to less medication use, lower government health-care costs, and fewer days in the hospital; this group also had better diets, exercise regimens, and smoking habits.
Together, these earlier findings suggest that it’s the diversity and frequency of emotions, not the type, that matter most. Jordi Quoidbach, one of the study’s lead authors and a psychology professor at Barcelona’s University Pompeu Fabra, told Discover magazine, “[Just as] biodiversity increases resilience to negative events because a single predator cannot wipe out an entire ecosystem, emodiversity may prevent specific emotions — in particular detrimental ones such as acute stress, anger, or sadness — from dominating the emotional ecosystem.”
Although the two studies seem to contradict each other, there’s space for them to co-exist: Ong’s research focused solely on inflammation, while the other study took a broader, more all-encompassing approach. And neither prove that emodiversity is the reason that a person is healthy — only that there are correlations between the two. More longitudinal studies are needed to clarify how different ranges of emotions, and emodiversity, affect our mental and physical well-being.
“Several studies have found that greater emotional diversity and various positive health outcomes were related, but we don’t know which causes what yet,” Quoidbach explains. One theory, he says, is that experiencing many different specific emotions (anger, shame, sadness) may have more adaptive value than experiencing fewer states or more general ones (like just feeling bad), as these specific emotions provide richer information to guide our everyday decisions and help us deal with challenges. On the other hand, it could also be that poor health leads to a less diverse emotional life by making people overly focused on a more narrow set of emotions, such as anxiety or anger. We also don’t know if emodiversity is inherent or learned, Quoidbach adds; no one has examined the development of emodiversity over the lifespan yet.
For now, our best bet for a healthier emotional ecosystem — and, maybe, a healthier body — may be to embrace the negative along with the positive, and to keep an open mind about what positive really means. “Try to allow yourself to experience the full range of emotional experiences,” Conason says. “This will allow you to enjoy the benefits of your positive emotions while having less stress around your negative ones.” After all, happy is a noble goal, but it’s not the only one worth pursuing.