The Surprising Link Between Your Emotions and Inflammation LevelsReading Time: 6 minutes
Have you ever experienced a painful inflammatory process in your body, or a disease condition that involved inflammation? Chances are you would do just about anything to stop that from happening (again), right? After all, systemic inflammation is linked to serious chronic diseases including diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer, as well as increased risk of premature death.
It might surprise you to learn that according to a study published in the Feb 2018 issue of the journal Emotions  simply cultivating a wide range of positive emotions can actually help to decrease inflammation levels in the body!
The research was conducted between 2007-2012 and involved 175 participants, aged 40 to 65. Each participant submitted diaries of their emotions, including such details as the number of different emotions they felt, how often they felt the emotions, and how strongly they experienced them.
Experiencing a Range of Emotions Is Important
Researchers refer to this range or diversity of emotions as “emodiversity.” The participants were asked to assess 16 positive emotions which included:
They also assessed 16 negative emotions, including:
- Feeling blue
As part of the study participants had their blood drawn at two different intervals which were analyzed for three different inflammatory markers: IL-6, CRP, and fibrinogen.
What the researchers found is that even after accounting for age, gender, anti-inflammatory medications, BMI, medical conditions, personality, and mean levels of positive and negative emotions… the people with the lowest inflammation rates were the ones who noted a wider range of positive emotions. Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, experiencing a wider RANGE of positive emotions seemed to matter more than simply feeling happy.
What About Negative Emotions?
Did those participants who experienced a wider range of negative emotions have higher levels of inflammation? You might think so, but that did not prove to be so.
The researchers found that there was no association between negative emodiversity (meaning a greater range of negative emotions) and increased inflammation.
Emotional Diversity Linked to Better Overall Health
Other studies have previously investigated this idea of emotional diversity and found that variety is indeed the spice of emotional life – and an indicator of good health.
One study in particular, termed the Emodiversity Project [2, 3], involved researchers from six leading universities in four countries. They undertook two studies involving more than 37,000 respondents in total.
They found emodiversity to be an independent predictor of mental and physical health.
The first study, comprising over 35,000 participants, found that people who experienced a high range of overall emotional diversity – not just positive emotions but negative ones as well as a mix of both – were less likely to suffer from depression than people who rated highly in positive emotions alone.
The second and smaller study involving 1,300 people found that people with higher overall emotional diversity also had better diets, exercised more, smoked less, had less need for medications, had lower health care costs, and spent less time in the hospital.
One of the project’s lead authors, Jordi Quoidbach, a psychology professor at Barcelona University, likens emotional diversity to environmental biodiversity. In an interview with Discover magazine , Prof Quoidbach stated:
“[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.”
In essence, these two studies seem to be rather convincing that expressing a wide range of human emotions makes us healthier overall than those who endeavor to be positive more often than not. However, other research studies have found that cultivating positive emotions does have very real and beneficial effects.
The Argument for Positive Emotional Diversity
Barbara L Fredrickson, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, and author of the book Positivity , has spent years investigating the role of positive emotions.
Her studies have led her to believe that positive emotions help to function as efficient antidotes, helping to correct or undo the lingering after-effects of negative emotions. She and her colleagues have termed this the “undoing hypothesis.”
Prof Fredrickson believes that negative emotions like fear and anger close down our minds and our hearts, whereas deeply felt positive emotions do quite the opposite. They open up our hearts and minds, improve our mindsets, and even our biochemistry.
The Broaden-and-Build Theory
Fredrickson is often quoted due to her studies in positivity. She also formulated a theory called the Broaden-and-Build Theory, which holds that positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that helped to increase our ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction.
In effect, in contrast with negative emotions, which assisted our ancestors to adapt in life-threatening circumstances, the benefits of broadened thought–action repertoires emerged over time and carried indirect and long-term ability to adapt because they helped to build social connections, coping strategies, and environmental knowledge .
The Emotional Tipping Point: A 3:1 Ratio
Prof Fredrickson’s studies have found that there is a tipping point between positive and negative emotions.
She explains that in order to reap the benefits of positive thinking, we need three positive emotions to help uplift us and open us up, as opposed to every one negative (as she terms it, “gut-wrenching”) emotion we may experience.
According to her studies, this 3:1 ratio separates those who merely get by in life from those who truly flourish .
Fredrickson says that most people clock in at ratios of 2:1 (positive to negative emotions) and even 1:1, so these people tend not to enjoy the benefits of positivity.
And while pressuring or forcing yourself to increase the positivity in your life will more than likely backfire, causing what she terms “toxic insincerity,” Prof Fredrickson does have some tips for helping to improve genuine, heart-felt positivity.
9 Ways to Improve Your Positive Emotions
- Cultivate an attitude of openness and let go of rigid expectations.
- Begin being more mindful. Try to live in the moment. How are you right this very minute? If you’re okay, just appreciate that. Try not to focus on past events or worry about future events.
- Work with expanding your awareness. Be curious about things and allow for other ideas.
- Begin to be more appreciative and grateful for small blessings.
- Be kinder to yourself and to others.
- Be real and sincere.
- When feeling negative, question the mental habits that may be feeding the flame of negativity. Try not to jump to conclusions or expect bad things to happen.
- Discover what things make you come alive and then give those activities higher priority in your life.
- Focus on the things that bring you joy, peace, serenity, and even deep curiosity.
As a useful tool to help people to track their positivity ratio, Fredrickson created a two-minute test which can be taken on the website: www.PositivityRatio.com. (Click on “Take the Test.”)
She recommends taking the test at the end of each day for two weeks to get a sense of your personal ratio. This is important because efforts to cultivate positive emotions today, Fredrickson tells us, make us better today, tomorrow, and next season than we would be otherwise.
So, which research resonates more with you? The Emodiversity Project’s findings that a wide range of emotions, both positive and negative, keeps us healthier? Or will you prefer to cultivate a more positive way of thinking by tweaking your positive thoughts toward the 3:1 ratio, as described by Prof Fredrickson?
Either way, it appears that not letting any single emotion, or set of emotions, dominate your life helps you to flourish.
To flourish means to be functioning optimally, and be embracing goodness, growth, good health, and resilience during life’s ups and downs. And certainly, isn’t that what life is about?
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Systemic inflammation is linked to serious chronic diseases including diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer, as well as increased risk of premature death.
Cultivating a wide range of positive emotions can actually help to decrease inflammation levels in the body.
Researchers found people with the lowest inflammation rates were the ones who noted a wider RANGE of positive emotions.
Researchers also found emotional diversity (aka emodiversity) to be an independent predictor of mental and physical health.
People with higher overall emotional diversity also had better diets, exercised more, smoked less, had less need for medications, had lower health care costs, and spent less time in the hospital.
In order to reap the benefits of positive thinking, we need three positive emotions opposed to every one negative emotion we may experience.
It’s important not to let any single emotion, or set of emotions, dominate your life.