New studies are investigating why life is such an emotional rollercoaster for certain people, and how to cultivate more stable happiness.
BY KIRA M. NEWMAN
Life can feel like an emotional rollercoaster sometimes, swinging from highs of joy and love to lows of grief and betrayal. Yet we all probably know someone who seems to be less jostled by the turbulence of it all.
While psychologists like to study the emotions people feel, they also look at emotional stability as a clue to our mental health and well-being. In fact, some research has found that people whose positive feelings fluctuate more are less satisfied with life and more depressed and anxious, no matter what their overall levels of happiness are.
But how do we create more stability in our emotional lives? Two new studies have uncovered some potential answers.
Purpose keeps you steady
In the first study, nearly 2,000 adults were asked about their sense of purpose and direction in life. Then, for eight days, they received a phone call in the evening and answered questions about how the day went. They reported on the positive emotions they experienced that day (like cheerfulness, calm, belonging, and confidence) and whether any positive events happened at home, at work, or in their social life, like a successful meeting or a good conversation.
People who were more purposeful had more positive events in their lives, and they also felt more positive emotions. And yet their well-being was less dependent on good things happening. While everyone tended to feel good after happy events, this was less true for people with a greater sense of purpose. In fact, something good happening one day didn’t have any lingering effects the day after for them.
“Purposeful individuals experience more positive events in general, and thus may feel that more are likely to come. Therefore, they don’t get as overwhelmed by the positive,” explains lead author Patrick L. Hill, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
While this might not seem like a benefit, it actually indicates that their emotions were more stable and less swayed by the caprices of daily life. This coincides with other research on purpose, which suggests it can buffer us from the effects of stress and help us recover better from unpleasant experiences. Plus, not getting too excited about an achievement will help you maintain the motivation to seek out the next one, Hill says.
In short, it seems like having a long-term, meaningful goal may give us a sense of stability and equanimity that transcends everyday concerns.
For stability, try fluidity
Another recent study uncovered a second key to more stable happiness: a fluid sense of self. In this experiment, researchers pinged 74 people seven times a day for five days, asking them about their happiness (their sense of satisfaction and inner peace), as well as their “selflessness.”
Here, what they meant by selflessness wasn’t altruism or kindness, but rather how separate and permanent (or interdependent and changing) they saw the self. This was measured in three ways: how much they felt “unity with everything,” how much overlap they saw between self and others, and how strong they perceived the boundaries of their own bodies.
By those standards, more selfless people tended to be happier, and people were also more likely to be happy in more selfless moments of the day. But more importantly, being less self-centered seemed to stabilize happiness. The more selfless someone was on average, the more stable their happiness was from one day to the next. And after a particularly selfless day, their happiness was more stable the next day.
The researchers believe that when we’re less self-centered and more focused on our connection with others and the world, the events of daily life don’t have as much influence over us. We don’t need everything to be just so in order to feel good because we experience a background sense of calm.
“We believe that the benefits of selflessness come from the sense of harmony that naturally arises from this state, and manifests as feelings of inner peace and contentment,” explain Nicolas Pellerin and his coauthors. If you’re wondering how to cultivate this zen-like approach to life, you might try meditation, getting into a state of flow, or seeking out awe, they say.
These findings don’t mean we should try to smooth out all the rough edges of our feelings and aim for 24/7 serenity. Other research has found that people who experience more variety in their emotions—not different levels of emotions, but different types of emotions, including negative ones—are actually healthier and less depressed. “The key is that [you] don’t overreact to [your] positive or negative events,” says Hill.
Our emotional lives are complex, and we want to experience the full range of our humanity—so long as the ride doesn’t get too rocky!
Ready to put this into action? Try this research-backed process for helping your children process emotions.
This article was originally published in Greater Good Magazine. Content may be edited for style and length.