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Is Emotional Self Control Related to Well-Being?

There has recently been much news coverage of House Majority Leader John Boehner’s emotional displays during interviews on 60 Minutes and also during various speeches. Some have been critical of the congressman while others have supported him. New research might shed some light on how emotional regulation relates to personal well-being.
Mr. Boehner is far from the only politician to display emotions in public. Former President George W. Bush and Vice President Joe Biden have both come to tears during public speeches, and most people felt that it was appropriate for the circumstances (post-September 11 attacks for President Bush, while VP Biden became tearful during a 2008 debate when discussing his upbringing). What seems to distinguish Mr. Boehner is the frequency with which he tears up, particularly during his interview on 60 Minutes.

In a previous blog we discussed some of the pitfalls of either showing too much emotion or not showing enough emotion. We quoted research showing that people may benefit from a judicious balance, taking into account the circumstances and the audience. New empirical research finds evidence that the ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status.

In two studies, researchers found that individuals who can best modify their emotional expression (either less or more) have higher well-being, disposable income, and socioeconomic status than individuals who are less skilled at managing their emotional expressiveness. In one study participants were measured on how well they could suppress their reactions to a loud startling noise. Those who suppressed their reactions were shown to be happiest with their lives. In the second experiment, participants viewed films of medical procedures that were meant to elicit disgust. In this case, those who amplified or expressed their feelings about the films were found to be happier, have more disposable income, and higher socioeconomic status than those who suppressed their emotions.

We should point out that a weakness of this research is that it’s correlational, and therefore causality cannot be established. In other words, it’s not known if regulating emotions leads to well-being, or if well-being leads to better ability at regulating emotions. What does seem clear is that experiencing strong emotion is part of what makes us human, and showing, or not showing, these emotions helps communicate our feelings and personal styles.

Click here to download a PDF of the research. 

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