In a study that earned a 2018 silver Mather LifeWays Innovative Research on Aging Award, researchers examined how systemic inflammation—which is linked to poor health, increased mortality risk, and of particular concern to older adults—is influenced by the types of emotions one experiences throughout the day. Specifically, researchers wanted to know if experiencing a greater variety of emotions (i.e., emodiversity) is more effective in reducing inflammation than experiencing a high level of only a few emotions.
Once a day for a month, 175 adults age 40 to 65 rated the extent that they felt each of 16 positive and 16 negative emotions. A questionnaire measured both the variety and intensity of emotions that participants experienced. Inflammation was measured by analyzing a blood sample that participants provided during a six-month follow-up visit. Participants also responded to demographic and medical history questions.
The researchers first examined the relationship between inflammation and global emodiversity—the average number of emotions, positive or negative, that participants experienced throughout the day. Contrary to expectations, global emodiversity had no effect on inflammation. Next, the researchers examined positive and negative emodiversity separately. They found that regardless of participants’ age, gender, medical conditions, and personality, individuals who experienced a wider range of positive emotions also experienced less inflammation. Interestingly, experiencing a wider range of negative emotions was not related to levels of inflammation.
Finally, the researchers examined the relationship between inflammation and emodiversity while taking emotional intensity into account. Some individuals may report experiencing only a few emotions, but at higher intensities. Others may experience the same level of emotion overall, but spread across more types of emotions. When controlling for level of emotion, however, the researchers found that again, positive but not negative emodiversity was related to reduced inflammation.
Overall, these results indicate that while positive emotions are beneficial to one’s health, it is important to seek out and experience a variety of emotions rather than relying on a select few. Primarily experiencing happiness, for example, would not be nearly as beneficial as regularly experiencing interest, amusement, and excitement.
Ong AD, Benson L, Zautra AJ, and Ram N. Emodiversity and biomarkers of inflammation. Emotion (2018); 18(1): 3-14.