Everyone experiences emotional highs and lows. Most people go through their days on a relatively stable emotional current, with mild mood fluctuations. External influences and events can cause spikes and dips in that current, but they generally are temporary in nature. For some people, however, emotional variability is a constant occurrence. Research has suggested that emotional variance can be a sign of poor mental health. In particular, people who experience continual highs and lows, and who maintain very little emotional stability long-term, may be at greater risk for borderline personality disorder and depression. However, until recently, most of the existing work has focused on overall levels of happiness and not variability of happiness. June Gruber of the Department of Psychology at Yale University wanted to look at this dynamic from a new perspective.
In a recent study, Gruber focused on happiness variance and stability as predictors of well-being and mental health. She conducted two separate studies, the first of which involved assessing the variability of positive emotions in a sample of 244 individuals over a period of two weeks. The second study examined how positive emotions fluctuated over the course of 24 hours in a sample of 2,391 French adults. Gruber found that in both studies, higher rates of emotional variability were strongly related to poorer mental health.
The individuals who experienced variability in positive emotions were less satisfied with life, and had lower well-being and more symptoms of anxiety and depression, than those with more stable positive emotional states. This finding could provide insight into why therapy approaches such as mindfulness have gained so much popularity. They focus on stabilizing emotional volatility and therefore help clients decrease emotional spikes that can lead to mood problems. Gruber believes that her research reveals that happiness in and of itself is not the only measure of mental well-being, but variance in levels of happiness over the course of even one day are quite predictive of mental health problems. “Specifically, too much variability and not enough stability in one’s positive feelings appear to co-occur with unhealthy psychological outcomes,” she said.
Gruber, J., Kogan, A., Quoidbach, J., Mauss, I. B. (2012). Happiness is best kept stable: Positive emotion variability is associated with poorer psychological health. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030262
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