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Why are some people better equipped than others to deal with life’s ups and downs? What might give others a leg up when it comes to the ability to savor positive emotions or showcase awareness in social situations? These variations in how we respond to emotionally challenging events is known as “affective style”.
These questions, among others, have driven decades of our research, and science suggests that our emotional makeup not only influences our mental and physical health, but also can be shaped by intentional training. Yet accurately measuring different aspects of emotional style across people has remained a challenge.
A recent paper from Center for Healthy Minds scientists, published in the journal Psychological Assessment, introduces a new measure that captures people’s emotional style and shows promise as a valuable tool for research and clinical purposes.
The measure, inspired by the work of Center for Healthy Minds Founder and Director Richard Davidson featured in his 2012 book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, identifies six emotional dimensions that can be traced to specific brain circuits.
These dimensions make up a person’s emotional life, and include resilience (the ability to recover from negative emotion); outlook (the ability to sustain positive emotion over time); social intuition (attunement to non-verbal social cues); self-awareness (the ability to perceive bodily cues related to emotions); sensitivity to context (how our emotions and behavior take into account situational contexts); and attention (the ability to screen out distractions and stay focused). The questionnaire yields scores for each of these six dimensions, as well as an overall score of healthy emotionality, which is the average of the six dimensions.
“We wanted to create a questionnaire that would provide a good sense of a person’s emotional style and an overall picture about their emotional health and well-being,” says Pelin Kesebir, an assistant scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds and lead author on the new paper. “The different dimensions provide a fine-tuned view of a person’s emotional life, whereas the questionnaire as a whole acts as a summary assessment of a person’s emotional well-being. We expected this overall score to correlate highly with well-being, but were blown away by the power of the association with measures of psychological and emotional well-being.”
“The different dimensions provide a fine-tuned view of a person’s emotional life, whereas the questionnaire as a whole acts as a summary assessment of a person’s emotional well-being. We expected this overall score to correlate highly with well-being, but were blown away by the power of the association with measures of psychological and emotional well-being.”
In the analysis, researchers looked at four studies including more than 1,300 participants online who took the questionnaire. They discovered that the outlook and resilience dimensions had the largest impact on well-being.
“It makes sense: Being able to sustain positive emotions is tantamount to happiness,” Kesebir says. “If you experience a healthy dose of positivity and you can sustain it, it can also empower and energize you to deal with adversity in a more constructive way. In that sense, resilience and a positive outlook are highly intertwined. If we cultivate our ability to sustain positivity, we are simultaneously cultivating our ability to bounce back from negativity.”
The attention dimension, after outlook and resilience, was also closely related to well-being, which may be surprising to people if they don’t think attention and happiness as interconnected.
“If you experience a healthy dose of positivity and you can sustain it, it can also empower and energize you to deal with adversity in a more constructive way. In that sense, resilience and a positive outlook are highly intertwined. If we cultivate our ability to sustain positivity, we are simultaneously cultivating our ability to bounce back from negativity.”
Richard Davidson, Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and senior author of the article explains, “This measure has been 30+ years in the making. The six emotional style dimensions are a product of decades of basic neuroscientific research. I’m thrilled we now have a reliable and valid index that is short and can be disseminated broadly, providing a granular picture of a person’s competence on each of the six core dimensions of emotional style. Our aspiration is that this measure becomes widely used to provide a nuanced view of the core emotional characteristics that underlie well-being."
A limitation of the questionnaire is that it is a self-report, meaning that it relies on people’s own subjective reports of their feelings, rather than on more objective measures, such as biological or behavioral ones. Kesebir and colleagues note that the questionnaire can complement other, potentially more objective measures, while being a short and easily implementable tool capable of predicting important life outcomes.
Definitions of the 6 Dimensions of Emotional Style
- OUTLOOK: The ability to sustain positive emotion over time
- RESILIENCE: The ability to recover from negative emotion
- SOCIAL INTUITION: Attunement to nonverbal social cues
- SELF-AWARENESS: The ability to perceive one's bodily signals that reflect emotions
- SENSITIVITY TO CONTEXT: The degree with which emotional and behavioral responses take into account situation context
- ATTENTION: The ability to screen out distractions and stay focused