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Asking one simple question can entirely change how you feel | Psyche

Portrait of a Man (c1472-76) by Antonello da Messina. Courtesy the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

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Asking one simple question can entirely change how you feel

Portrait of a Man (c1472-76) by Antonello da Messina. Courtesy the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

by Christian Waugh + BIO

The pursuit of happiness is many people’s primary goal in life, and a subject that’s occupied countless philosophers and psychologists over the millennia. It is usually painted as an effortful and difficult aim to accomplish, especially in trying times. Indeed, it’s through their promises to help us reach a happier place that many self-help gurus pay for their mansions on the beach. However, taking the first step to being happier could be a lot simpler than many people realise.

Logic dictates that happiness relies, at least in part, on a person’s ability to regulate their emotions. After all, emotion regulation is the process of trying to change one’s current emotions to reach a more desired emotional state. For example, I hate crying at sad movies, so whenever I feel the sadness creeping up, I usually crack a joke to ward it off. Many of the emotion-regulation strategies people commonly use might be familiar to you, such as doing fun things, talking with a friend, and trying to think about the situation differently.

However, there is actually a much simpler way to change how you feel, as my colleagues and I, along with other researchers, have found. It starts with answering the question ‘How do you feel?’ You might think of the answer as just a ‘report’ of your current emotional state or mood, end of story. But there’s more to it: research shows that the mere act of answering this question actually changes the emotions you are currently feeling.

When we put our feelings into words in this way, scientists call it ‘affect labelling’. In psychology, the word ‘affect’ (the ‘a’ is pronounced as in the word ‘tap’) refers to the family of feelings that include emotions and moods. So, if someone asks you how you feel or if you ask yourself the same question, you ‘affect label’ if you respond by saying something like ‘I feel angry’, but not if you just respond with a grunt or a grimace.

Studies have shown that when people label their negative emotions, it can decrease how negative they feel. For this research, participants typically view various negative emotional stimuli (such as images of snarling dogs or impoverished children) and then the researchers ask them to either label the emotion of the image (eg, ‘fear’ or ‘sad’) or, for a control comparison, to label the content of the image (eg, ‘animal’ or ‘person’), and finally the participants will report their emotional feelings. Importantly, at no point do the researchers instruct the participants to purposefully and effortfully reduce their negative emotions. Most participants are also unaware that labelling their emotions might change their feelings. The fact that labelling the emotion provoked by an image nonetheless has this dampening effect on participants’ negative feelings suggests that affect labelling is different from those deliberate emotion-regulation strategies I mentioned earlier. It seems that affect labelling can help reduce negative emotions ‘implicitly’ – or without a conscious goal.

Affect labelling helps people feel better by dampening negative emotions while also heightening positive emotions

You might wonder what this has to do with experiencing more happiness, rather just less misery. Relevant here is whether affect labelling works the same way with positive emotions as with negative emotions – by reducing them – or whether it works differently? To answer this question, my team used much of the same methodology as in the previous research, but we also had participants label the emotions or content of positive emotional images (eg, cute puppies or laughing children). In an initial study, we found a curious result: after participants affect labelled the positive images, they actually felt more positive emotions. This wasn’t a random result. We replicated the finding in three further studies in which we manipulated aspects of the research design (such as having participants label the image during or after seeing it), demonstrating that affect labelling positive stimuli reliably improves people’s positive emotions.

In all the studies I’ve mentioned, we and other researchers prompted affect labelling by asking participants to label the emotion in the images. You might understandably wonder whether they responded to that instruction by specifically labelling their own subjective emotional response to the images or rather by thinking about some other emotional aspect of the image (which one could argue is a process distinct from affect labelling). This is a limitation of the research to date that needs to be looked into further, but we think it most likely the participants were indeed affect labelling – ie, using their own emotional responses when labelling the emotion in the images, especially given that we also asked them to rate their own emotional state after each image, which would have encouraged them into that mode of thinking.

That caveat aside, our interpretation of the new findings is that affect labelling does not have a uniform effect of reducing all emotions, but that it helps people feel better by dampening negative emotions while also heightening positive emotions. But how does it work? Why would the simple act of putting your feelings into words help you feel better? Along with other scientists working in this area, my team proposes an explanation that goes like this. To put feelings into words, people must first identify their emotional experiences. To do that, they must self-reflect not only on what their feelings are, but also what may be causing their emotions (consideration of these precedents can be clarifying) and, in turn, we propose that this leads to automatic reflection on what could be the appropriate course of action to address the identified emotion(s).

For example, say you are insulted by a coworker, then asked how you feel. When you respond by saying ‘I am angry’, we suggest you also identify the cause of your current emotions – the coworker’s insult – and you automatically begin to identify ways to address that emotion, perhaps by talking with your colleague about the insult. Identifying the causes and possible courses of action for negative emotional experiences helps people feel better. People generally enjoy having less uncertainty and a better idea of what to do next. Indeed, this is why affect labelling is a popular technique among therapists as a way to get their clients to better process their emotions.

For positive emotional experiences, we think the processes behind affect labelling probably work a little differently. When you feel good, there is not necessarily something that you need to address or a course of action you need to take. As a result, positive emotional experiences can often be quite fleeting. There is always some other problem to worry about, so it is easy for us to allow positive emotional experiences to pass by without much thought. We propose that affect labelling positive emotional experiences can help solve this problem. By saying to yourself or to others ‘I feel content’ (or whatever your positive emotional state happens to be), you will notice your positive emotion, identify what type of specific positive emotion it is, and perhaps self-reflect on it. That way, instead of floating off almost as soon as it is felt, the positive emotion sticks around for a little while longer, helping you to feel better (just as we found in our studies).

Instead of using generic words such as ‘happy’, it is more effective to use specific words such as ‘joyous’, ‘amused’ or ‘content’

There are some things we know about how affect labelling works in real life. For example, the technique works best when performed verbally – literally saying the emotions out loud or writing them down. This forms the basis for a lot of therapeutic techniques that clinical psychologists and therapists have their clients do, such as talking about and identifying their emotional experiences (think about the stereotypical therapist in a movie or TV show saying to their client: ‘How do you feel?’) as well as journalling about their emotional experiences.

Importantly, affect labelling is also more effective when it involves self-reflecting on and identifying authentic positive emotional experiences. This is different from when people try to trick themselves into feeling better by just stating that they feel good when maybe they don’t. The importance of using affective labelling in an authentic way is consistent with other research showing that people tend to enjoy higher wellbeing when they feel like they are being authentic to themselves and not faking parts of their life.

When labelling positive emotions, the type of words you use also matters. Instead of using generic, all-purpose words such as ‘happy’, it is more effective to use specific positive-emotion words such as ‘joyous’, ‘amused’ or ‘content’. Research has shown that people who label their positive emotional experiences with these more specific words also tend to be able to cope better with stress. The reason is that labelling positive emotional experiences with more specific words provides a better window into identifying and noticing those experiences. On the flip side, when people have difficulty identifying and labelling their emotional experiences, this can lead to problems. For instance, people with alexithymia – who have trouble identifying, labelling and processing emotional experiences – are known to be at increased risk for depression.

There remains much for us to find out about the affect-labelling effect. For example, one thing we know less about is: when is the optimal time to use it – eg, during the peak of the emotion or after it has subsided a little? Also, one limitation of the studies so far is that we have used only mild emotional stimuli, so it is not clear what the role of affect labelling is in really powerful positive emotional situations. Imagine a perfect moment of intense happiness or pure serenity, how would saying how you feel out loud affect that moment? Would it improve it, ruin it, or not really have any effect at all?

Although there are some remaining questions that we and other researchers are trying to answer, we know enough to be confident that the next time someone (including yourself) asks you how you feel, just answering that question could be a small, but significant first step along your neverending pursuit of happiness.

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28 September 2022