New psychology research suggests that differences the words an individual produces spontaneously correspond to differences in emotional functioning. The findings, published in Nature Communications, indicate that larger negative emotion vocabularies are associated with more psychological distress and poorer physical health, while the opposite is true of positive emotion vocabularies.

“There’s a lot of great new work by other researchers about possible mental health benefits of having strong conceptual knowledge about different emotion words. At the same time, researchers have rarely studied the emotion vocabularies that people use in their own words or outside of a psychology experiment,” said study author Vera Vine (@VeraJVine), a licensed clinical psychologist and postdoctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

“We wanted to open up this area of research by starting with a big-picture snapshot of the link between natural emotion vocabularies and emotional experience and well-being. Hopefully we’ll inspire more mental health researchers to measure the ways people name emotions in their own words.”

The researchers analyzed stream-of-consciousness essays written by 1,567 college students during the beginning and end of an academic semester. The students also self-reported their moods periodically during the semester and completed assessments of physical health, emotional health, and personality. In addition, Vine and her team examined public blogs written by more than 35,000 individuals.

The researchers found that students who used a wider variety of emotion words tended to experience an intensification of the corresponding mood in a “strikingly” specific manner. In other words, students who used more words for sadness grew sadder, but did not grow more worried, angry, or stressed.

Those who used a wider variety of negative emotion words tended to also display linguistic markers associated with worse well-being — such as references to illness and being alone. In the student sample, those who used a wider variety of negative emotion words reported greater depression, neuroticism, and poorer physical health.

Students who used a variety of positive emotion words, in contrast, tended to have higher conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and overall health, and lower depression and neuroticism. Likewise, using a wider variety of positive emotion words was associated with linguistic markers of better well-being — such as references to achievement and leisure activities.

The researchers found this was true even after controlling for the emotional tone of the texts and the size of individuals’ general vocabularies.

“Using more different ways of naming a feeling — especially a negative feeling — does not necessarily mean you are better off in your emotional or physical health, compared to others who name emotions in less varied ways,” Vine told PsyPost.

“Having a lot of different words for a similar feeling might mean, perhaps, that you’ve had enough experiences with it have become somewhat of a connoisseur of that feeling. You might have lots of different ways to name a particular kind of feeling because you know it well.”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats. “One of the biggest being that this study can’t tell us about cause and effect — whether having more different names for a feeling affects our emotional experience, or vice versa,” Vine explained.

“Another caveat is that the findings are pretty subtle and not universal to everyone. Across the hundreds and thousands of people in our two studies, we found a correspondence between using a lot of negative emotion synonyms and negative well-being, and between positive emotion synonyms and positive well-being. But this doesn’t mean you would see the correspondence in a single individual.”

The researchers developed an open-source software, called Vocabulate, to process the texts. They have made the program available “to help other researchers looking for ways to measure natural emotion word vocabularies,” Vine said.

The study, “Natural emotion vocabularies as windows on distress and well-being“, was authored by Vera Vine, Ryan L. Boyd, and James W. Pennebaker.