Most of us aim for emotional stability. That usually means opting for a few manageable emotions — preferably positive ones like happiness, gratitude and contentment — and avoiding all the rest. Maintaining an even emotional keel, we’re told, is the best way to boost our physical and mental well-being.

But is it? Well, not exactly, according to recent research. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but evidence increasingly shows that residing in a narrow emotional bandwidth may give you a "cool as a cucumber" aura, but it doesn’t keep your mind and body healthy. Rather, it’s your ability to experience a diverse range of emotions in fairly equal measure — called emodiversity or emotional diversity — that’s good for you. In other words, the more emotions you feel (even negative ones, according to some research), the merrier you’ll be.

Mood swings

The idea that a rich and multifaceted emotional life leads to better health was first introduced in a massive 2014 study involving American and European scientists from four countries and more than 37,000 participants. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the scientists divided their research into two studies.

The first explored how emodiversity relates to depression. Participants were asked to rate how frequently and to what degree they experienced nine positive emotions (such as contentment, hope and awe) and nine negative emotions (including anxiety, fear and guilt). They rated each emotion on a scale from never (score of 0) to most of the time (score of 4).

Those who listed the greatest number of emotions and experienced them in relative abundance – meaning emotions were felt pretty evenly in relation to one another (see the graphic below) – received the highest emodiversity score.

emodiversity Individuals high in emodiversity experience more emotions in similar measure than those low in emodiversity. (Photo: Quoidbach, Gruber, Mikolajczak, Kogan, Kotsou & Norton/Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem)

The findings illustrated that the greater someone’s emodiversity, the less likely they were to be depressed. That was true for all people high in emodiversity, whether they experienced an abundance of positive emotions, negative emotions or a rich mix of both.

The second study explored how high emodiversity affects physical health. Participants were asked how often and to what degree they experienced 10 positive and 10 negative emotions. Again, people who were emodiverse – whether skewed toward positive or negative emotions – were healthier. This included making 25 percent fewer visits to the doctor and paying one-third less in medical bills.

Why does high emodiversity benefit the mind and body? The researchers suggest it may be similar to the resilience of a biodiverse ecosystem in nature – the more types of plants and animals in a habitat, the less likely a single negative event will be able to wipe out everything.

As they note: "Emodiversity may prevent specific emotions – in particular detrimental ones such as acute stress, anger or sadness – from dominating the emotional ecosystem."

Emotional healing

A more recent emodiversity study takes a closer look at what beneficial biological processes may be at play in highly emodiverse people. Specifically, the researchers explored how experiencing a broad and proportional mix of emotions affects inflammation in the body, which is a major risk factor for disease and death.

The scientists asked a group of 175 participants (ages 40 to 65) to fill out a daily survey for a month detailing which of 32 positive and negative emotions they experienced. At a six-month follow-up visit, they were tested for three inflammatory markers in their blood: interleukin-6, C-reactive protein and fibrinogen.

Interestingly, these findings, published in the journal Emotion, didn’t exactly mirror the previous study. Only those who experienced a lot of positive emotions – not negative ones or a mix – had lower levels inflammation in their bodies. This was true across the board, regardless of participants’ body-mass index, medical status, gender, or personality traits like extraversion.

Why was high negative emodiversity beneficial in the previous study but not this one? The authors speculate that discrepancies may result from differences in research subjects (this study used older participants) or differences in how emotional diversity was measured (the earlier study surveyed subjects in a single session, while this study followed them over several days). Further research should make things clearer.

Feeling deeply

Clearly, experiencing a broad balance of different emotions (perhaps with an emphasis on positive feelings) is good for your mind and body. Here are some ways to enrich your emotional life and improve your health.

First, take the test on Emodiversity.org to see the breadth and abundance of your emotions. If you’re highly emodiverse, congratulations. If you’re a "Johnny one-note" – constantly defaulting to a few blanket emotions like happy or angry – you may need to expand your emotional range.

This can take some practice. Some of us have trouble teasing out subtler emotions because our families weren’t emotionally fluent. Or we were raised to believe some emotions are dangerous, so instead of naming and examining them, we tend to squelch them.

feelings underlying generic emotions Beneath many generic emotions, like anger or excitement, there are often deeper, more nuanced feelings that can be harder to recognize. (Photo: User:ShelleyAdams/Wikimedia Commons)

Cultivating emotional self-awareness – also known as "emotional intelligence" – is like any skill. It takes time to master. Try these tips:

• Start by really tuning in to what you feel moment by moment. Dig deep and try to identify all your feelings, including smaller emotions that may underlie larger ones. For example, generic feelings like happiness may be a combination of more nuanced emotions such as enthusiasm, wonder and appreciation (see the graphic above). Learn to tease them all out and experience each separately.

• Don’t push away uncomfortable or painful emotions, like envy, guilt or grief. Instead allow yourself to experience them in full.

• For inspiration, watch a child. Kids aren’t afraid to feel their many emotions completely and purely.

• Try new things outside your comfort zone and pay attention to unfamiliar feelings that surface. By embracing everything that comes up, you begin to expand your emotional repertoire.

• Keep a journal of feelings. The act of writing down what you feel each day can add dimension and shape to your emotional landscape.

You can also read more about emotional intelligence at Psychology Today, which breaks down the topic in great detail.

feel emotions like a child Learning to feel emotions again like you did as a child can boost your health. (Photo: tuckett/flickr)