Category: Emotion

Embracing discomfort, rather than avoiding it, can help us work towards our personal goals

By Matthew Warren

In order to develop new skills or grow as a person, you often have to get out of your comfort zone. Say you want to become a better public speaker: you will have to get up and practice speaking in front of others, and that will likely feel awkward and uncomfortable at first.

This can create barriers to personal growth, because those feelings of discomfort that you experience will come well before you will notice any improvement in your skills. As a result, you might feel that the negative emotional experience is not worth it, and give up on your goal.

But what if we reframe our attitude towards discomfort, seeing it as a sign of progress and something to strive for rather than avoid? A new paper in Psychological Science suggests that this way of thinking can motivate people to work towards their goals.

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Here’s how our ability to empathise changes as we get older

By Emma Young

How does age affect our ability to empathise? Some researchers think that our ability to understand and respond to others’ feelings follows an inverted U-shaped pattern, with empathic skills peaking in middle age before declining again in older age. But as Michelle Kelly at the University of Newcastle and colleagues point out in their paper in Neuropsychology, findings in this field have been mixed. Their new work, on 231 adults aged 17-94, suggests that while people aged over 65 aren’t quite as good at “cognitive empathy” (working out what someone is likely to be feeling), they are just as good at “feeling with” others.

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A mother’s early life experiences of adversity can influence her baby’s sensitivity to stress

By Emma Young

Over the past few decades, it’s become clear that experiences even before birth influence later psychological wellbeing. A mother’s stress levels during pregnancy have emerged as a key influence. Greater stress seems to programme her child to “expect” a difficult environment, and so to be more sensitive to potential threats — and more vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder. It’s uncertain, though, whether adversity earlier in life affects stress levels during pregnancy, and so might impact the child’s sensitivity to stress. So Cassandra L. Hendrix at New York University and colleagues set out to investigate.

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Having a sense of meaning is less important for your happiness if you’re rich

By Emily Reynolds

Searching for meaning is something many of us experience throughout our lives: finding something to strive for that gives shape, direction, and purpose to the things we choose to do. For some, this meaning is religious; some political; some interpersonal. And having a sense of meaning can bring us happiness (or, if we lack meaning, unhappiness).

A new study to be published in Emotion looks at the relationship between meaning and happiness in the context of financial resources. Rhia Catapano from the University of Toronto and colleagues find that meaning is a far weaker predictor of happiness for rich people than poorer people — suggesting economic resources can impact how we experience meaning.

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The downwards head tilt seems to be a universal signal of dominance

By Emma Young

One of the best-known but also most contentious ideas in psychology has to be that there are “universal” expressions of at least some human emotions. According to this idea, which was pioneered by Paul Ekman, particular patterns of facial muscular movements are reliable indicators of anger, disgust, fear, surprise, happiness, sadness and contempt, no matter where you are in the world. In other words, these expressions are a fundamental part of being human.

The idea of universal emotional expressions has been challenged, however. Some psychologists argue that even within the US or UK, say, facial movements that we routinely associate with certain emotions — such as a smile with feeling happy — don’t reliably match in that way. Others think that facial “expressions” are better understood as social signals. According to this model, when someone smiles, it doesn’t mean that they’re happy but rather that they want to be sociable and cooperative, while a frown doesn’t mean “I’m angry” but rather “I want you to bend to my will”. Physical social signals, beyond facial movements, have been identified, too. And now a new paper in Scientific Reports enters this field, with the claim that a downwards head-tilt is a “possibly universal” signal of dominance.

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When we’re in a good mood, we’re more likely to engage in healthy behaviours

By Emily Reynolds

On some days, waking up and engaging in healthy behaviours is easy — you get up, hit the gym, drink enough water and spend time with friends. On others, even getting out of bed seems like too much effort.

Knowing how to encourage healthy behaviours is therefore pretty useful, and much research has been done on what makes them stick, whether that’s avoiding indulgent friends or paying to remove temptation. And a new study from a Kent State University team, published in Motivation and Emotion, finds that positive mood can also encourage healthy behaviour — at least in the short term.

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Psychological interventions focused on our strengths may improve mood faster than those focused on weaknesses

By Emily Reynolds

Therapeutic interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy or dialectical behavioural therapy often focus on the development of skills, such as ways to identify and actively challenge particular patterns of thought, feeling or behaviour. Indeed, research into CBT has found that the development of such skills can lead to fewer and less distressing symptoms and a reduced risk of relapse.

A new study looks at what happens when these interventions are explicitly framed around our strengths or weaknesses. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the team from Ohio State University finds that focusing on skills that are particular strengths can help people recover from sad moods faster.

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Study of haunted house visitors reveals how our bodies respond to threat in real-world scenarios

By Emma Young

It’s tricky to investigate fear. An ethics panel would frown on shooting at people (even with pellet guns), or exposing them to simulated suffocation — or drowning. Though we know that scary situations trigger physiological arousal so that we can fight or flee, ethical and practical concerns have made it hard to get at just how that plays out in the real world. Enter a team from the California Institute of Technology, who left the lab in favour of an immersive scary prison attraction in nearby Orange County.

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Feelings of awe may motivate us to become our “authentic” selves

By Emma Young

Awe has to be one of the hottest emotions in psychological research. Here at the Digest, we’ve covered all kinds of recent work on everything from the benefits of awe walks to the mixed emotion of threat-awe. Now a new paper argues that awe “awakens self-transcendence”, helping people to get closer to their true, “authentic” self.

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Do emojis represent the whole gamut of human emotion?

By Matthew Warren

Emojis have become part of our everyday communication online, allowing us to succinctly communicate how we’re feeling in a way that written language cannot. Psychologists are even beginning to use emojis in research, to allow children or other participants to respond without the need for traditional questionnaires.

But is the library of emojis that is available to us truly representative of the range of emotions that we feel? A new study in Scientific Reports suggests that, broadly, it is — but that there are some important gaps too.

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