Continuing on last week’s theme of clarifying the contributions of happiness to well-being (also the theme of the March issue of WholeLiving!), this week we take a look at the importance of expressing our positive emotions.
Emotions Define Us
As one of my favorite psychology researchers says in her excellent book Emotion Science, “Emotions are at the heart of what it means to be human.” If you stop and think about the influence emotions have had on your life even in the last few hours, I think their tremendous power will become obvious. Emotions define which experiences we value, which people we treasure, and help navigate us through a world of constant decisions.
Emotions = Social Glue
Emotions also play a critical social role. They are the glue that holds relationships together. You choose your friends and lovers based on who makes you laugh, who makes you feel beautiful, who makes you feel safe and appreciated. When relationships disintegrate, it is very often for emotional reasons – the other person no longer understands your inner emotional world or no longer makes you feel cherished.
Positive emotions in particular appear to be critical for our social relationships. Displaying positive emotions alerts others that we are friendly and approachable, and sharing positive experiences may strengthen relationships. These relationships, in turn, may feed into our happiness.
A Research Study Examines the Importance of Expressing Positive Emotions
Iris Mauss and colleagues at the University of Denver conducted a research study examining the relationships among expression of positive emotions, social connectedness with others, and well-being (in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). Participants visited the lab several times over the course of a year.
In these sessions they reported on:
--Level of well-being
--Social connectedness (assessed by questionnaires measuring social support, extent of feelings of belongingness, and levels of loneliness)
How They Measured True Emotional Expression
Participants also viewed an amusing film clip while reporting changes in emotion using a rating dial (like a kind of thermostat). While they watched the clip, their facial expressions were videotaped and scored as to how much positive emotion (such as smiling, laughing) was expressed. This allowed the researchers to measure the extent to which people were expressing their true emotions (e.g., when they reported a big jump in positive emotion using the rating dial, did they also laugh?).
The researchers hypothesized that positive emotions should only be related to greater social connectedness and well-being if they were accurately reflecting one’s true emotional state. After all, if someone routinely smiles when they aren’t feeling positive or looks blank-faced when we would expect them to laugh, these behaviors would likely reduce social connectedness because most people would find them to be strange or unpredictable.
What the Researchers Found
The results supported the researcher’s hypothesis – the more tightly people’s expressions were tied to changes in their (positive) emotional state, the higher their levels of social connectedness, which then was related to higher levels of well-being and lower levels of depression over the course of the study.
In other words, people who were happy and showed it had better relationships, and having better relationships predicted happiness (lower depression, higher well-being).
So next time you are happy – show it. (Clapping hands is optional.)
Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in affective science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. To learn more about her research, please visit http://bit.ly/sarahrose.