Did you know that you have your own emosystem? And that your emodiversity is fundamentally important to your well-being?
Most of us are familiar with the idea of biodiversity: the variety and abundance of different types of plants, animals and other species in given habitat. One of the reasons biodiversity is so important is that it increases resilience. For example, the Amazon rain forest has at least 40,000 different plant species. If one of these becomes extinct it's likely that any animals who depend on it for food will be able to find an alternative. They're probably already eating a variety of plants anyway - there are so many to choose from.
If, however, a plant species becomes extinct in a desert region, with only a few species available, the animals who depend on it may die, and so will any animals who depend on them. That could cause the collapse of the entire ecosystem.
So, let's take that idea and use it to think about the human emotional ecosystem. Let’s say, for example, that Gary and Magnus are both starting a new job next week. You ask Gary how he’s feeling about the new job and he says, ‘scared’. When you ask Magnus about the new job you get something like, ‘I’m nervous, but also excited and, actually, a little bit nostalgic when I think back to the good times I had at my previous job, but I’m really grateful for this opportunity.’
They're clearly different in their emodiversity: Gary has low emodiversity, Magnus high. In other words, emodiversity is the 'richness' of emotional experience - characterised by the number of different emotions experienced - and evenness of emotional experience, which is characterised by not having any single emotion dominate.
And maybe you can see how the idea of resilience also works here. Gary is much more likely to be overwhelmed by his single feeling of fear. Whereas Magnus's emodiversity means that no single emotion can dominate his emotional ecosystem. His wide range of emotional experience also gives him a much better chance of dealing effectively with the situation, fine-tuning his responses in the light of each emotion.
Importantly, this is not about being able to balance out negative emotions with positive ones. For example, if you were to experience nothing but sadness in response to suffering a bereavement, this emotion might well overwhelm you and lead to depression. But if you were to experience sadness, anger, confusion, empathetic pain, and fear - none of them pleasant emotions - it's less likely that any one of these emotions would dominate your emotional ecosystem. This is likely to effect your behaviour, making it less likely that you withdraw from social support, and therefore less likely that you fall into depression.
Well, that's the theory, and it was tested by Jordi Quoidbach and colleagues, using an impressive 37,000 participants across two studies.
They gathered questionnaire data from each participant, measuring:
Their overall level of positive and negative emotional experience
Their level of depression
Their personality scores on the Big 5 dimensions: conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness to experience, and extraversion
Their age and gender
For each participant they gathered the same emotional experiences, emodiversity, age and gender information as above. But in this study they also collected data on three objective health indicators covering the previous 11 years. These were:
The mean number of visits to family doctors per year
The mean number of days spent in hospitals per year
The mean Defined Daily Dose (an established indicator of medication consumption)
Finally, they also gathered self-report data on the participants' eating, exercising, and smoking habits.
What they found was that, regardless of gender, age or personality, greater emodiversity was associated with decreased risk of depression. This effect was found regardless of whether positive or negative emotional experiences were reported: it was the breadth of emotional experience that mattered, not the type of emotional experience.
They also found that greater emodiversity was related to fewer visits to the doctor, fewer days spent in hospital and less medication. Again, these effects were not related to reporting positive or negative emotions - it was purely the breadth of emotional experience that mattered.
In fact, emodiversity was a similar or stronger predictor of physical health than positive emotional experience, healthy eating, exercising frequently and even being a non-smoker.
The researchers are keen to point out that their data does not, in itself, prove that emodiversity causes the positive effects found - they simply found that greater emodiversity was associated with better mental and physical health. But put these striking findings together with the theories how biodiversity and emodiversity might work in the same beneficial way and you have some powerful evidence pointing to the benefit of something as simple as naming your emotions. All you need to do is work on maintaining and increasing your emodiversity, and there's help for that right here.
Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem. Quoidbach, J, et al. 6, s.l. : Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014, Vol. 143.