An increasing amount of evidence suggests that our emotional lives can have a significant impact on health outcomes. A recent study suggests that it is not just positive or negative emotions that contribute to health, but also the way that we react to emotional setbacks. In addition to examining the impact of positive and negative emotions, this study focuses on the association of participants’ reactions to emotional events with mortality. When researchers examined participants’ reactions, they found that some of the ways that they reacted affected health risks.
The starting point for this study was daily diaries collected from 181 men in 2002 and 2003. The average age of these participants at the start of the study was 64. The data collected from the diaries over the course of eight days included daily stressors, physical symptoms, positive and negative emotions, memory, pain, and social support. Ten years after this data was collected, 35 of the participants had passed away. The researchers then looked at which factors collected in the initial diary study were associated with a greater likelihood of dying.
The initial analysis of the data looked at whether the overall levels of positive or negative emotion were associated with changes in mortality risk. Here, the researchers found that neither the daily average of positive emotion or negative emotion was associated with greater mortality risk.
However, the primary concern of the study was how the participants reacted to emotional stressors reported in their diaries. That is, how levels of positive and negative emotions changed and how quickly, following the report of an emotionally stressful event. Using this procedure, the researchers could determine how responsive the participants’ emotions are to stress. Such responses to stressors could involve both an impact on negative emotions (i.e., more negative emotion following a stressor) and positive emotions (i.e., fewer positive emotions following a stressor). The impact of stressors on positive and negative emotions was examined separately.
When the researchers looked at the role played by the reaction to stressors, a significant association emerged: they found that the decreases in positive emotions following a stressful event were associated with a greater risk of death. Each one point decrease in positive emotion score was associated with a 132 percent increase in mortality risk. The same result emerged both when the average level of positive and negative emotions were taken into account and when they were not. Interestingly, the impact of stressful events on negative emotion scores was not significantly associated with mortality risk.
The authors of this study suggest that this association of the impact on positive emotions with mortality may reflect a lessened ability to counteract the negative psychological effects of stress. This could reflect the impact of the participants who had smaller decreases in positive emotion sustaining better health behaviors or seeking out social support after the stressful event. This finding suggests that in order to protect against the negative health impacts of stress, strategies should be developed to help individuals maintain higher levels of positive emotions in the face of stress. While we may be more likely to notice the negative emotions that stressful events produce, the impact of stressful events on positive emotions should not be ignored.