Humans are emotional beings, to the extent that we cannot arrive to a full understanding of human cognition without taking emotion into account. Our emotional states color our perception of the world and our interactions with others. Emotional well-being is a central goal in many psychological interventions, and behavioral economists have brought attention to how emotions skew the rationality of our decisions. Yet, there has been little information on the prevalence of emotion in everyday life. The few studies of this topic have been limited to small surveys of experimental subjects—ranging in the dozens to the hundreds—in which undergraduate students or community dwellers, prompted by a random pager, recorded their feelings at discrete moments.
A new study, published last December in the journal PLOS ONE, sought to circumvent the limitations of prior work by applying a “big data” approach to the investigation of daily emotion. To accomplish their goal, the scientists developed a smartphone application that allowed real-time self-monitoring of emotions by more than 11,000 participants (largely French nationals, between 14 and 74 years of age). Subjects picked ahead of time how often they would report their emotional states during the day (once a day minimum, and 12 times a day maximum, within a time window of their choosing). Then the application sent them questionnaires at random times, with a minimum of 1 hour between requests. Upon receiving the questionnaires, participants had to indicate whether—at that particular point in time—they were feeling or not any of nine positive emotions (alertness, amusement, awe, gratitude, hope, joy, love, pride, and satisfaction) and/or nine negative emotions (anger, anxiety, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, fear, guilt, offense, and sadness), adapted from a standard emotional scale.
The answers revealed that emotion never stops. It is ubiquitous to human life—even during mundane activities—to an extent previously unknown. People reported feeling one or more emotions an astounding 90% of the time. Among such experiences, positive emotions exceeded negative ones by a factor of 2.5. Specifically, respondents felt one or more positive emotions 41% of the time, one or more negative emotions 16% of the time, and a mixture of positive and negative emotions 33% of the time. Not surprised yet? The most prevalent positive emotion was joy, which people felt 35% of the time, and the second most dominant was love, which people felt 30% of the time. As the authors of the study concluded, we live profoundly emotional lives. Not only to live is to feel, but a large portion of our everyday feelings are loving ones.
Happy Valentine’s Day.