Style of Emotional Life

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So far in this chapter , we have discussed people' s emotional lives in terms of emotional content, or the various characteristic emotions that define how one person i different from others. Now we turn to a discussion of emotional style. As a quick distinction, we might say that content is the what of a person's emotional life, whereas style is the how of that emotional life.

Affect Intensity as an Emotional Style

When we think about how emotions are experienced, probably the major stylistic distinction is one of intensity. You know from experience with your own emotional reactions that emotions can vary greatly in terms of magnitude. Emotions can be weak and mild, or strong and almost uncontrollable. To characterize a person' s emotional style, we must inquire about the typical intensity of his or her emotional experiences. For emotional intensity to be useful to personality theory , we must establish that it describes a stable characteristic useful for making distinctions between persons.

Affect intensity can be defined by a description of persons who are either hig or low on this dimension. Larsen and Diener (1987) describe high affect intensity individuals as people who typically experience their emotions strongly and are emotionally reactive and variable. High af fect intensity subjects typically go way up when they are feeling up and go way down when they are feeling down. They also alternate between these extremes more frequently and rapidly than do low af fect intensity individuals. Low af fect intensity individuals, on the other hand, typically experience their emotions only mildly and with only gradual fluctuations and minor reactions Such persons are stable and calm and usually do not suf fer the troughs of negative emotions. But they also tend not to experience the peaks of enthusiasm, joy , and other strong positive emotions.

Note that these descriptions of high and low af fect intensity persons make use of the qualifying terms typically and usually . This is because certain life events can make even the lowest af fect intensity person experience relatively strong emotions. For example, being accepted into one's first choice of schools can cause intense pos itive emotions in almost anyone. Similarly , the death of a loved pet can cause strong negative emotions in almost everyone. However , because such events are fairly rare, we want to know what people are usually or typically like: how they characteristically react to the normal sorts of everyday emotion-provoking events.

Figure 13.7 presents daily mood data for two subjects from a study by Larsen and Diener (1985). These subjects kept daily records of their moods for 84 consecutive days. Note that Subject A's emotions were fairly stable and did not depart too far from her baseline level of mood over the entire three-month reporting period. Actually, she had a bad week at the beginning of the semester , which is denoted by the

Figure 13.7

Data from individual subjects who kept a mood diary every day for three consecutive months. (a) Data from subject A. (b) Data from Subject B, who has much more intense moods and larger day-to-day mood swings than Subject A. Source: Adapted from Larsen, 1991.

Figure 13.7

Data from individual subjects who kept a mood diary every day for three consecutive months. (a) Data from subject A. (b) Data from Subject B, who has much more intense moods and larger day-to-day mood swings than Subject A. Source: Adapted from Larsen, 1991.

several low points at the left side of the graph. Otherwise, things were pretty stable for this subject.

Subject B, on the other hand, exhibited extreme changes in mood over time. This subject was hardly ever near his baseline level of mood. Instead, Subject B appears to have experienced both strong positive and strong negative af fect frequently and to alternate between these extremes frequently and rapidly . In other words, this high affect intensity person exhibited a good deal of variability in his daily moods, fluctuating back and forth between positive and negative a fect from day to day. Interestingly, Subject B was in the student hospital three times that semester , once for an infection and twice for feeling run down.

Assessment of Affect Intensity and Mood Variability

In early studies of af fect intensity (e.g., Diener, Larsen et al., 1985) this characteristic of emotional life was assessed using a daily experiential sampling method. That is, data were gathered much like that presented in Figure 13.7, panels a and b. Researchers would then compute a total score for each subject to represent how intense or variable that person was over the time period.

This longitudinal method of measuring af fect intensity is straightforward and face valid, and it represents the construct of af fect intensity quite well. However , it takes several weeks or longer of daily mood reporting to generate a reliable composite affect intensity score for each individual. Consequently , a questionnaire measure of affect intensity has been developed that allows a relatively quick assessment of a person's emotional style in terms of intensity . Table 13.6 lists 20 items from this questionnaire, called the Affect Intensity Measure (AIM) (Larsen & Diener , 1987).

An important aspect of the af fect intensity trait is that we cannot really say whether it is bad or good to be low or high on this trait. Both positive and negative consequences are related to scoring either high or low . High-scoring persons, for example, get a lot of zest out of life, enjoying peaks of enthusiasm, joy , and positive emotional involvement. On the other hand, when things are not going well, high-scoring persons are prone to strong negative emotional reactions, such as sadness, guilt, and anxiety . In addition, because high-scoring persons have frequent experiences of extreme emotions (both positive and negative), they tend to suffer the physical consequences of this emotional involvement. Emotions activate the sympathetic nervous system, making the person aroused. Even strong positive emotions activate the sympathetic nervous system and produce wear and tear on the nervous system. High-scoring persons tend to exhibit physical symptoms that result from their chronic emotional lifestyles, such as muscle tension, stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue. An interesting finding is that, even though they report more o these physical symptoms, high-scoring persons are not particularly unhappy or upset by them (Larsen, Billings, & Cutler , 1996). Interviews with high-scoring persons usually show that they have no desire to change their level of emotional intensity . They seem to prefer the emotional involvement, the ups and downs, and the physiological arousal that accompanies their highly emotional lifestyle (Larsen & Diener , 1987).

Low affect intensity individuals, on the other hand, are stable and do not typically get upset very easily. Even when negative events happen, they maintain an even emotional state and avoid the troughs of negative af fect. The price such people pay for this emotional stability, however, is that they fail to experience their positive emotions very strongly. They lack the peaks of zest, enthusiasm, emotional engagement, and joy that ener gize the lives of high af fect intensity individuals. Low af fect intensity individuals, however , do not pay the price of the physical and psychosomatic symptoms that go along with the high af fect intensity personality.

Table 13.6 AIM Questionnaire

INSTRUCTIONS: The following statements refer to emotional reactions to typical life events. Please indicate how you react to these events by placing a number from the following scale in the blank space preceding each item. Please base your answers on how you react, not on how you think others react or how you think a person should react.

Never 1

Almost Never Occasionally Usually Almost Always Always 2 3 4 5 6


_ When I accomplish something difficult, I feel delighted or elated.


_ When I feel happy, it is a strong type of exuberance.


_ I enjoy being with other people very much.


_ I feel pretty bad when I tell a lie.


_ When I solve a small personal problem, I feel euphoric.


_ My emotions tend to be more intense than those of most people.


_ My happy moods are so strong that I feel as if I were in heaven. _ I get overly enthusiastic.


_ If I complete a task I thought was impossible, I am ecstatic.


_ My heart races at the anticipation of an exciting event.


_ Sad movies deeply touch me.


_ When I'm happy, it's a feeling of being untroubled and content, rather than being zestful and aroused.


_ When I talk in front of a group for the first time, my voice gets shaky and my heart races.


_ When something good happens, I'm usually much more jubilant than others.


_ My friends might say I'm emotional.


_ The memories I like the most are of those times when I felt content and peaceful, rather than zestful and enthusiastic.


_ The sight of someone who is hurt badly affects me strongly.


_ When I'm feeling well, it's easy for me to go from being in a good mood to being really joyful.


_ "Calm and cool" could easily describe me.


_ When I'm happy, I feel as if I'm bursting with joy.

Research Findings on Affect Intensity

In a daily study of mood, Larsen, Diener , and Emmons (1986) had subjects record the events in their daily lives. Sixty-two subjects recorded the best and the worst events of the day for 56 consecutive days, resulting in almost 6,000 event descriptions. The subjects also rated these events each day in terms of how subjectively good or bad the events were for them. The same event descriptions were rated later by a team of raters for how objectively good or bad they would be for the average college student. Results showed that the subjects high on the af fect intensity dimension rated their life events as significantly more severe than did the low af fect intensity subjects. That is, events that were rated as only "moderately good" by the objective raters (such as receiving a compliment from a professor) were rated as "very good" by the high affect intensity subjects. Similarly , events that were rated as only "moderately bad" by the objective raters (such as losing a favorite pen) tended to be rated as "very bad" by the high affect intensity subjects. Thus, the high affect intensity subjects tended to evaluate the events in their lives—both good and bad events—as having significantl more emotional impact than did the low af fect intensity subjects. High af fect intensity individuals are, thus, more emotionally reactive to the emotion-provoking events in their lives, both the good and the bad events.

An aspect of these findings worth emphasizing is that high a fect intensity individuals are more reactive to both positive and negative events in their lives. This may be due to the fact that af fect intensity correlates positively with both extraversion and neuroticism. These aspects of af fect intensity make high-scoring persons look like neurotic extraverts; they respond with strong positive emotion to good events and with strong negative emotion to bad events. However , if we assume that good and bad events happen fairly randomly in life, then we should expect the daily emotions of high af fect intensity individuals to go up and down randomly with those events. In other words, high affect intensity individuals should exhibit more mood variability, or more frequent fluctuations in their emotiona lives over time. Larsen (1987) found that individuals high on the af fect intensity dimension do, in fact, exhibit more frequent changes in their moods and that these changes tend to be lar ger in magnitude than are the mood changes of low af fect intensity individuals.

The concept of af fect intensity, containing as it does the notion of mood variability, is a general and broad characteristic of emotional life. Affect intensity has been found to relate to a variety of standard personality variables. For example, Larsen and Diener (1987) reported that af fect intensity relates to the personality dimensions of high activity level, sociability, and arousability. High affect intensity individuals tend to have a vigorous and ener getic lifestyle, tend to be outgoing and enjoy being with others, and tend to seek out stimulating and arousing things to do in their daily lives. During an interview , a high af fect intensity subject reported that, to her , the worst thing in life was to be bored. She reported that she often did things to liven up her life, such as playing practical jokes on her roommates. Although such activities sometimes got her into trouble, she felt that it was worth it to obtain the stimulation. Another high af fect intensity subject described himself as an "intensity junkie," hooked on the need for an emotionally stimulating lifestyle.

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