Your emotional vocabulary reflects the degree of your wellbeing

Whether your emotional vocabulary is negative or positive reveals your state of health and wellbeing, says new research

Emotional vocabulary concept | Red and green speech bubble

The words you use to describe your emotions are an indicator of your mental and physical health and overall wellbeing, an analysis led by a scientist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has revealed. The study, published in Nature Communications, reveals that a larger negative emotion vocabulary — or different ways to describe similar feelings — correlates with more psychological distress and poorer physical health, while a larger positive emotion vocabulary correlates with better wellbeing and physical health.

“Our language seems to indicate our expertise with states of emotion we are more comfortable with,” said lead author Vera Vine, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Pitt. “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.”

To examine how the depth of emotional vocabulary corresponds broadly with lived experience, Vine and her team analysed public blogs written by more than 35,000 individuals and stream-of-consciousness essays by 1,567 college students. The students also self-reported their moods periodically during the experiment.

Is your emotional vocabulary negative or positive?

Overall, people who used a wider variety of negative emotion words tended to display linguistic markers associated with lower wellbeing — such as references to illness and being alone — and reported greater depression and neuroticism, as well as poorer physical health.

Conversely, those who used a variety of positive emotion words tended to display linguistic markers of wellbeing — such as references to leisure activities, achievements and being part of a group — and reported higher rates of conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, overall health, and lower rates of depression and neuroticism.

These findings suggest that an individual’s vocabulary may correspond to emotional experiences, but it does not speak to whether emotion vocabularies were helpful or harmful in bringing about emotional experiences.

“There’s a lot of excitement right now about expanding people’s emotional vocabularies and teaching how to precisely articulate negative feelings,” Vine said. “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.”

More names for an emotion implies its growing intensity

During the stream-of-consciousness exercise, Vine and colleagues found that students who used more names for sadness grew sadder over the course of the experiment; people who used more names for fear grew more worried; and people who used more names for anger grew angrier.

“It is likely that people who have had more upsetting life experiences have developed richer negative emotion vocabularies to describe the worlds around them,” noted James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and an author on the project. “In everyday life, these same people can more readily label nuanced feelings as negative which may ultimately affect their moods.”

A custom open-source software developed by these researchers to help with emotion vocabulary computation is called “Vocabulate.”

— Read the original research article

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