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Why Feeling More Makes You Feel Better

By Shelley Levitt
May 10, 2022

From bees to bullfrogs, baboons to bacteria, from redwood trees to coral reefs—every form of life plays a part in keeping the natural world healthy and in balance. Biodiversity, we’ve long known, is good for the planet.

And what’s beneficial for the natural world turns out to be beneficial for us, too. Emodiversity, short for emotional diversity, is the name researchers have given to the ability to experience a wide range of emotions. And, studies show, we flourish when we embrace a full kaleidoscope of feelings, from anxiety and sadness to joy and gratitude.

“The variety and abundance of emotions that you experience is correlated with both better mental health and better physical health,” says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a psychologist in Sonoma County, California, and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.

How Emodiversity Benefits Health

Researchers surveyed more than 37,000 adults to find out how often they experienced nine specific positive emotions, including happiness, hope, serenity, and amusement, and nine negative emotions (anger, guilt, disgust, and fear, among them).

When the results were tallied, the findings were clear: People with the highest emodiversity scores—meaning they experienced the greatest mix and frequency of emotions—were the least likely to be depressed. They also made fewer visits to the doctor and had lower medical bills.

What’s more, a follow-up study revealed that those who experience lots of different types of positive feelings—for example, calm, awe, curiosity, pride, and excitement—have the lowest rates of inflammation.

That’s significant, because systemic inflammation has been linked to chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Negative emotions, the research shows, has no effect on inflammation.

So, why would emodiversity be such a boon for our well‑being?

For one thing, emotions serve as guideposts as we navigate the human experience. Having access to lots of different emotions is like having an internalized GPS that, as key emodiversity researchers have said, draws our attention to the important elements in our environment that “need to be noticed, changed, processed, and understood.”

Another upside to emodiversity is that it makes us more flexible, adaptable, and resilient. As researchers have noted, just as biodiversity ensures that a single predator cannot wipe out an entire ecosystem, emodiversity prevents us from being thrown off balance by a single emotion like anger or stress. “The more multifaceted your emotional life is,” says Manly, “the less likely you are to fracture or crumble when unpleasant feelings emerge.”

Best of all, when you have access to a varied range of emotions, not only will you have the capacity to see that a challenging experience is both scary and exciting, you’ll also be less likely to get bored or indifferent to the good things in your life.

Want to expand your emodiversity? Try these tips.

Increase Your Emotional Vocabulary

Make a list of feelings and emotions, from A (aglow) to Z (zippy). Keep it on your smartphone or tape it to a mirror, the fridge, or anywhere that’s within easy view. Do a mood check a couple of times a day and, at bedtime, tick off every emotion you felt during the day. You’ll start to tap into nuances of your emotional life.

With practice identifying your feelings, you might be surprised to discover that within 12 hours you felt both agitated and serene, testy and loving, maybe a little discouraged with moments of pride, contentment, and gratitude.

Be Open and Welcoming to Every Emotion

When an emotion arises, don’t judge it or label it, just feel it. “Try to sense where in your body you’re feeling the emotion,” Manly says. “For example, ‘I’m experiencing stress and the feeling is in my chest.’”

When we’re able to observe our emotions with some degree of detachment, what Manly calls “being comfortably uncomfortable,” we open ourselves up to growth. The alternative—attempting to flee from emotions like fear or anxiety—may keep us stuck.

Query That Feeling

Instead of trying to squash an uncomfortable emotion, investigate what message it’s sending. Fear, for example, might be alerting you to a threat. Dig deeper: What’s the threat? Likely, it’s not a charging saber-tooth tiger; but, perhaps, the possibility of rejection in an upcoming job interview or on a first date. Thank your fear for the message, then let it know that you’re going to prepare as best you can, present your authentic best self, and deal with whatever the outcome.

Debrief positive feelings, too. What exactly are you feeling on a hike through the park? In awe of the flowers that are blooming? Grateful for the strength in your legs? Appreciative that you’re able to take time for yourself after a busy week?

Recognize You Can Feel Conflicting Emotions Simultaneously

You’re excited to be able to visit your favorite restaurant, but annoyed by the one-hour wait for a table. You’re happy that a friend got a big promotion, but also a little jealous. You’re grieving the loss of a beloved dog, but filled with gratitude for the joy he brought you. Congratulations, you’re in touch with your feelings! Next steps: accepting that a rich inner life means you’re likely to experience more than one emotion at a time and appreciating that a relationship or an event isn’t diminished because it’s not 100 percent good or bad.

Life, you’ll discover, is a lot more interesting when your emotional landscape isn’t black and white but includes the hues and colors of a kaleidoscope of feelings.

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