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Psychological wellbeing is promoted by positive emotions, but how we experience emotions is very specific. For example, we do not just feel good, but relieved or determined or amused. Similarly, we do not just feel bad, but angry, or sad, or lonely. Emotions with the same charge, positive or negative, can also lead to completely different behaviours. For example, we behave differently when we are proud than when we are grateful. Or when we are angry than when we are bored. Understanding how specific emotions are linked to our behaviors and wellbeing provides tools to improve our wellbeing. This has now been tested on a large scale for the first time.

Global research on emotions and psychological wellbeing

Sixty-two scientists from all over the world (including researchers from the University of Amsterdam, the University Chicago Booth School of Business, the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and the University of Wisconsin Madison) tested the hypothesis that certain kinds of emotional experiences relate to psychological wellbeing during a stressful period.

They studied the relationship of twenty different emotions with wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic, a period of great psychological stress for people worldwide. The researchers conducted a survey among 24,221 participants in fifty-one countries during the Covid-19 outbreak, and additionally conducted a replication study in the US and UK and a longitudinal diary study.

Calm, hope, anxiety, loneliness, and sadness

The scientists found that across all countries, five emotions were consistently linked to psychological wellbeing, namely calm, hope, anxiety, loneliness, and sadness. Experiences of these five emotions predicted later changes in wellbeing. Calm and hope were linked to better psychological wellbeing, while anxiety, loneliness, and sadness with lower wellbeing.

'These results were confirmed in the replication and diary study and were very consistent across countries,' says one of the researchers Rui Sun of the University of Amsterdam/ University Chicago Booth School of Business. ‘This is remarkable since the circumstances between countries differed strongly. For example, countries varied dramatically in governmental pandemic policies and levels of prosperity.’

Hope gives resilience

And why are these five emotions particularly important? The researchers point out that calm activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps with stress recovery. And hope provides resilience because it helps people focus on opportunities in their environment. It therefore acts as a protective mechanism against stress. Prolonged anxiety or sadness, on the other hand, are known to increase the risk of psychological problems. Finally, loneliness is strongly related to the lack of social relationships that are important for our mental health.

Welfare interventions

The findings, the scientists say, provide a key to strengthening individual and societal interventions to improve wellbeing. 'Not only individuals, but also organizations and public institutions can help to create opportunities for experiences of calm and hope, and interventions to tackle anxiety, sadness, and loneliness,' says co-researcher Disa Sauter of the University of Amsterdam. 'This is especially important given the collective stress that we can expect in the future, for example as a result of climate change.'

Publication details

The article is published in the scientific journal Emotion. Go to the article: Emotional Experiences and Psychological Well-Being in 51 Countries During the COVID-19 Pandemic