Now in Nature Communications: The Association Between Emotional Vocabulary and Lived Experience 

It is widely believed that naming emotions can promote mental and physical health. However, little is known about how the use of wide emotional vocabularies is associated with emotional functioning. From a linguistic perspective, emotional vocabularies can be understood within two domains: active vocabulary, words that an individual uses spontaneously, and passive vocabulary, the full range of words that an individual recognizes. Research has indicated that investigation into active emotional vocabularies will help clarify the role of emotion language in well-being. 

A paper recently published in Nature Communications examined the characteristics of active emotional vocabularies and their relationships to differences in mood, personality, and physical and emotional well-being through two studies. In the first study, 1,567 college students recorded their thoughts for 20 minutes in stream-of-consciousness essays. The researchers, led by Vera Vine, PhD, a Pitt Psychiatry postdoctoral fellow, analyzed the rate of non-repeated emotion words (words used to name emotional states or feelings). In the second study, the researchers analyzed the emotional vocabulary contained within the text of blogs written by 35,385 individuals. 

The results of Study 1 revealed that writing with an expansive emotion vocabulary was associated with intensification of a corresponding mood—for example, individuals employing a wide variety of words to describe sadness grew sadder. Across both studies, using expansive negative emotion vocabularies was associated with trait indicators of lower well-being, whereas using expansive positive emotion vocabularies was somewhat related to higher well-being. The research team also released Vocabulate, an open-source software intended to help other researchers looking for ways to measure natural emotion word vocabularies.

Dr. Vine, the study’s first author, expanded on these results. “This study raises some interesting questions for future research about the relationship between language and experience, which could be reciprocal. Having access to many different words to express a feeling might mean, perhaps, that extensive experience with it has made you a connoisseur of that feeling. At the same time, naming emotions in a nuanced or thorough way could also reify or slightly increase those feelings. Background literature in philosophy, linguistics, and affective science supports both these possibilities.Our studies also have important caveats, particularly that they can’t tell us about cause and effect—whether using more varied emotion words was responsible for the strengthening of the corresponding mood, or not. In addition, the findings are subtle and not universal to everyone. Across the thousands of people in our two studies, we found a correspondence between using a lot of emotion synonyms and emotional well-being. But this doesn’t mean you would see the correspondence in a single individual. 

For now, we have helped open this newer area of research by starting with a big-picture snapshot of the link between natural emotion vocabularies and experience. Hopefully we’ll inspire more mental health researchers to measure the ways people name emotions in their own words.”
Natural emotion vocabularies as windows on distress and well-being
Vine V, Boyd RL, Pennebaker JW.

Nature Communications 11, 4525 (2020).