People who know more positive words relating to the emotions are likely to have better mental health, new research finds.
People who naturally use words like glad, joyful, gleeful, perky and jolly are also likely to be in better physical health.
The use of a wider variety of positive emotion words was also reflected in personality: cheerful words were linked to being more outgoing, agreeable and conscientious.
Conversely, those who know more words for negative emotions report higher levels of neuroticism and depression — they are also likely to be in worse physical health.
Dr Vera Vine, the study’s first author, said:
“Our language seems to indicate our expertise with states of emotion we are more comfortable with.
It looks like there’s a congruency between how many different ways we can name a feeling and how often and likely we are to experience that feeling.”
The conclusions come from stream-of-consciousness essays written by 1,567 students and an analysis of over 35,000 public blogs.
The results showed that the language people use feeds back into their mental state.
While writing the essays, people who used more words for sadness grew sadder and people who talked about fear became more fearful.
People using many different words for positive emotions, though, tended to show more linguistic markers of mental well-being.
They talked about achievements, leisure activities and being part of a group.
Dr Vine said:
“There’s a lot of excitement right now about expanding people’s emotional vocabularies and teaching how to precisely articulate negative feelings.
While we often hear the phrase, ‘name it to tame it’ when referring to negative emotions, I hope this paper can inspire clinical researchers who are developing emotion-labeling interventions for clinical practice, to study the potential pitfalls of encouraging over-labeling of negative emotions, and the potential utility of teaching positive words.”
The study helps underlines how important language is to our lived experience.
It is not just a way of communicating with others, it is also how we tell ourselves how we are feeling.
Professor James W. Pennebaker, study co-author, said:
“It is likely that people who have had more upsetting life experiences have developed richer negative emotion vocabularies to describe the worlds around them.
In everyday life, these same people can more readily label nuanced feelings as negative which may ultimately affect their moods.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications (Vine et al., 2020).