Volume 13, Number 12
Acute inflammation is an important and essential feature of the immune system’s response to a pathogen (such as an infection) or an injury, and subsequent process of tissue repair and healing. However, chronic inflammation is harmful to health. Chronic inflammation may be the result of the body’s inability to eliminate a pathogen, an autoimmune disease, or ongoing exposure to an irritant. While there are a number of chronic inflammatory diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis), chronic inflammation is also increasingly implicated in many other common health problems, including coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, obesity, and many cancers. In other words, chronic inflammation is something to avoid. Poor diet, sedentary behavior, and substance misuse are all known to contribute to chronic inflammation.
It has been established that negative mood states — particularly those that are enduring — are associated with increased levels of inflammatory markers, such as interleukin-6 (a proinflammatory cytokine) and C-reactive protein (CRP). Correspondingly, it is also known that experiencing a preponderance of positive emotions is associated with lower levels of such markers of inflammation. Recently, several investigators examined the question of how experiencing a wide range of emotions might be associated with inflammation. The results of their research were published in the journal Emotion.
For a period of 30 days, study participants kept daily diaries of the extent to which they experienced each of 16 negative emotions and 16 positive emotions, drawn from the Positive Affect – Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). Positive emotions were: enthusiastic, interested, determined, excited, amused, inspired, alert, active, strong, proud, attentive, happy, relaxed, cheerful, at ease, and calm. Negative emotions were: scared, afraid, upset, distressed, jittery, nervous, ashamed, guilty, irritable, hostile, tired, sluggish, sleepy, blue, sad, and drowsy. Emotional diversity, or “emodiversity,” was defined by the investigators as the variety and relative abundance of discreet emotions experienced.
Higher positive emodiversity, that is, experiencing a wide variety of positive emotions frequently rather than just a few positive emotions, was found to be associated with less systemic inflammation. This association was independent of other factors that can affect inflammation, including age, gender, anti-inflammatory medications, body mass index, medical conditions, and personality. Interestingly, in this study inflammation was not associated with average levels of positive and negative emotion, the overall range of emotions experienced (i.e., positive and negative emotions), nor a simple ratio of positive to negative emotions.
It is known that positive affectivity (experiencing a preponderance of positive emotions) is associated with better health, and this study suggests that one pathway for this is less inflammation. One of the roles of positive emotional experience is to help mitigate the impact of stress and facilitate more creative coping and problem-solving. Positive emotions are known to help undo negative emotional experience. It may be that because different emotions have distinct neurologic and physiologic processes, the human organism may benefit differently from distinct positive emotions. This is parallel to the benefits of eating a variety of vegetables, rather than just a few.
The investigators appropriately acknowledge that their study was observational, so that it is conceivable that inflammation itself affects emotional experience. However, studies of psychotherapy and of positive psychological interventions indicate that persons typically have much control over their emotional experience.
Experiencing a wide range of positive emotions on a regular basis appears to be a healthy goal, more than simply aiming to be “happy” all of the time. Perhaps emodiversity can be thought of as an aspect of emotional intelligence, in that being aware of a wide myriad of emotions and allowing oneself to experience an assortment of emotions is a desirable thing to do. Just as biodiversity is known to be good for the gut, it may be that emodiversity is good for the central nervous system and its relationship to the immune system.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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