The words we use to describe emotions are a reflection of our mental health and overall well-being, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. A larger negative emotion vocabulary, or having more ways to describe negative feelings, is associated with psychological distress and poorer physical health. On the other hand, a bigger vocabulary describing positive emotions is associated with a greater sense of well-being and better physical health.
“Our language seems to indicate our expertise with states of emotion we are more comfortable with,” said study lead author Dr. Vera Vine. “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 investigate the relationship between emotion vocabulary and life experience, Dr. Vine and her team analyzed 35,000 public blogs, as well as stream-of-consciousness essays by 1,567 college students. During the study period, the students regularly reported on their moods.
The analysis showed that people who used a wider variety of negative emotion words, such as references to illness or being alone, reported greater depression and neuroticism and poorer physical health.
By contrast, those who used a variety of positive emotion words, including references to leisure activities, achievements, and being part of a group, reported higher rates of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and overall health. These individuals also had lower rates of depression and neuroticism.
The findings suggest that an individual’s vocabulary corresponds to their emotional experiences, but it is not yet clear whether emotion vocabularies are 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,” said Dr. Vine. “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 experts discovered that during the stream-of-consciousness exercise, students who used more words to describe sadness grew sadder over the course of the experiment. Likewise, individuals who used more words for fear became more worried, and people who used more names for anger became angrier.
Study co-author Dr. James W. Pennebaker is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It is likely that people who have had more upsetting life experiences have developed richer negative emotion vocabularies to describe the worlds around them,” explained Dr. Pennebaker. “In everyday life, these same people can more readily label nuanced feelings as negative which may ultimately affect their moods.”
The study is published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.