A new study just released by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is giving new meaning to the phrase “reading between the lines.”
Researchers there investigated what one’s vocabulary can reveal about their overall health and well-being. They discovered that it isn’t just the words we choose that reveal our emotions and well-being, but the number of words as well.
More specifically, a larger personal vocabulary of negative-emotion oriented words (sad, depressed, forlorn, stressed, worry, bothered) usually correlates with a worse state of mental health and poorer physical health.
Conversely, people who tend to use multiple positive emotion words (love, excited, happy, content) tend to be on better footing, both mentally and physically.
For example, let’s say you bump into an old friend on the street and ask them how they’re doing. Your friend replies: “I’m doing really good! I just got a new job, which is always stressful, but I’m really just worried about making a good first impression. Anyway, I’ve gotta run, I’m scared I’ll miss the next train.”
On the surface, your old friend pretty clearly just told you they’re doing “really good,” but their use of multiple negative words (stressed, worried, scared) indicates that they’re actually feeling on edge and anxious.
In simpler terms, the study’s authors say that when someone seems to have endless ways and words in their vocabulary to convey the same feeling, it suggests that the individual is more accustomed to feeling that way.
“Our language seems to indicate our expertise with states of emotion we are more comfortable with,” explains lead study author Vera Vine, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Pitt, in a university release. “It looks like there’s a congruency between how many different ways we can name a feeling and how often and likely we are to experience that feeling.”
The research team analyzed over 35,000 public online blogs and 1,567 stream-of-consciousness essays written by college students for this project. During that analysis they looked out for negative and positive emotion words, and how often each individual was using such phrases. Also, the included college students periodically checked in with researchers to report their overall moods and emotional states.
Sure enough, blogs and essays that included a lot of different negative words focused more on topics associated with lower well-being (loneliness and illness). College students who wrote essays in this category also reported higher levels of depression and neurotic behavior, and worse physical health.
On the other hand, essays and blogs filled with a wide variety of positive words tended to focus on happier topics like leisure activities, social experiences, and success/achievements.
The authors of these pieces reported lower levels of depression and neuroticism, and better physical health, extraversion, and agreeableness.
All in all, these findings conjure up the timeless question of the chicken and the egg. Or, in this case, do certain people use more negative words because they’ve had worse experiences in life? Or do people with a pessimistic outlook (and vocabulary) end up bringing more adverse outcomes on themselves?
The study’s authors can’t say for sure but say their study certainly suggests that one’s vocabulary correlates with emotional experiences.
“There’s a lot of excitement right now about expanding people’s emotional vocabularies and teaching how to precisely articulate negative feelings,” Vine adds. “While we often hear the phrase, ‘name it to tame it’ when referring to negative emotions, I hope this paper can inspire clinical researchers who are developing emotion-labeling interventions for clinical practice, to study the potential pitfalls of encouraging over-labeling of negative emotions, and the potential utility of teaching positive words.”
“It is likely that people who have had more upsetting life experiences have developed richer negative emotion vocabularies to describe the worlds around them,” notes study co-author James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “In everyday life, these same people can more readily label nuanced feelings as negative which may ultimately affect their moods.”
Regarding the stream-of-consciousness essays specifically, researchers also pointed out that college students who used multiple names for sadness appeared to grow more depressed throughout the study. The same phenomenon was observed among students using lots of words for fear and anger.
It’s often said that our thoughts shape our realities. These findings suggest our vocabularies do as well.
The full study can be found here, published in Nature Communications.