Bipolar Disorder and the Balancing Act of Emotions

Jasmine Mote

The United States is a culture deeply invested in the pursuit of happiness. But what if feeling excited or ambitious could lead to devastating consequences, such as going bankrupt, hospitalization, or harming yourself?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness where people experience manic episodes, which for some are characterized by intense feelings of euphoria, pride, or excitement. In common parlance, people often use the terms “bipolar” or “manic” in a derogatory sense, to mean “crazy” (e.g., “She is totally bipolar”). But in reality, bipolar disorder is a serious psychiatric condition with specific symptoms surrounding waves of extreme positive emotion and waves of depression. You’d think that experiencing a lot of positive emotion would be a good thing, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  Feeling too good can have negative consequences.

June Gruber at the University of Colorado, Boulder, among others, has shown that people with bipolar disorder experience more positive emotions and for a longer duration than people who do not, even if they are not experiencing a manic episode (for a review of this literature, go here). Manic episodes may also be characterized for others by intense feelings of irritability and general emotional instability. Overall, however, while manic episodes may feel good for some people, they also lead to an increase in engaging in risky behavior (such as reckless driving) and impulsivity, among other symptoms, and can damage interpersonal relationships, cause severe financial stress, or lead to suicide. Further, many people with bipolar disorder also experience depression between manic episodes, where they may feel sad, not enjoy things that they used to enjoy, find it hard to do everyday tasks, and also have thoughts of suicide.

Balancing ActBalancing emotions in bipolar disorder can be tricky when both feeling good and feeling bad have severe consequences, and some people may decide that it’s simply too risky to put themselves into situations that can cause too much happiness. Research has shown that some people with bipolar disorder try to reduce, or dampen, the positive emotions in their lives more than people without bipolar disorder. For example, they may try to not make a big deal out of positive experiences or avoid positive situations (such as pursuing romantic relationships) altogether to help them prevent a future manic episode. Such strategies lead people to report a lower quality of life and may ultimately put themselves at risk for depression.

So how can people with bipolar disorder stay healthy but also still experience the positive emotions that make life so enriching? As part of a team of researchers led by Sheri Johnson and Ann Kring at the University of California, Berkeley and Judy Moskowitz at Northwestern University, we are currently testing a group treatment intervention to increase healthy positive emotions in people with bipolar disorder. Based on Dr. Moskowitz’s work on interventions designed to increase positive emotion in other populations, such as in people with schizophrenia and people recently diagnosed with HIV, we have developed a 10-week group treatment intervention study called the Learning Affective Understanding for a Rich Emotional Life (LAUREL) Group. The group uses basic emotion research and teaches skills related to increasing positive emotions that have not been shown to significantly increase the risk of a manic episode, such as low activation positive emotions (e.g., calm, relaxation, serenity) and emotions focused on others (e.g., gratitude). Some examples of the skills we teach include emotion regulation strategies (e.g., changing the way we think to change the way we feel), mindfulness meditation, and self-compassion. The study is currently ongoing and we have already received a lot of positive feedback from previous group members. We hope that skills such as these can help people with bipolar disorder — in addition to their current treatments — navigate the balancing act of their emotions so that they can both stay healthy and feel good in their daily life.

Special thanks to Sheri Johnson, Ph.D., for her feedback on an earlier version of this post. 

Photo credit:

Can Disgust Be Anger for Kids?

Sherri Widen

Imagine you and a 2-year-old child are watching TV.  In the show, a man discovers that his soup contains sheep’s eyeballs.  You think to yourself, “Wow, that guy is really disgusted!”  The child says, “Wow, that guy is really mad!”  You are confident that, in fact, the guy is disgusted.  Does that mean that the child is wro2462987456_c9d17a5539_zng?  Most people assume that children and adults understand emotions in very similar ways.  But as this example shows, that may not be the case.

Although children begin using emotion words in conversation before the age of 2 and have a wide emotion vocabulary before the age of 5 years, studies of children’s use of emotion words find that they initially have two broad emotion categories: one for positive emotions and one for negative ones.  For example, 2-year-olds have been asked to say how people with different facial expressions feel.  The 2-year-olds used angry for facial expressions of anger, disgust, and sadness but not for facial expressions of happiness, surprise, or fear.  So, for young children, angry is a much broader category than it is for adults.  Older preschoolers are less likely to use angry for sadness facial expressions but it is not until children are at least 9 years old that they stop using angry for the disgust facial expression.

How do children go from two broad emotion categories (positive vs. negative) to more specific, adult-like categories?  In answering this question, it is helpful to think of emotions as “scripts” which include causes, consequences, and so on: for disgust, a person smells something foul (cause), wrinkles his or her nose (facial expression), covers his or her nose (behavior), and tries to get away from the source (consequence).  Which of these parts of the script might help children first understand that their broad negative emotion category is composed of distinct emotions?  From among all the causes, consequences, behaviors, etc., children need to notice that some things tend to co-occur.  For disgust, causes may provide that initial clue (eating or smelling something awful).  By 3 years, children know both the causes and words for disgust but it is not until they are much older that they connect the facial expression to the other parts of the disgust script.  In contrast, for sadness, by 4 years of age, children have connected the causes, consequences, facial expressions, and labels of the script.

As children move from preschool-aged to middle childhood, they learn about a wider variety of emotions, such as embarrassment, pride, and shame.  Just as younger children initially understand emotions like sadness, anger, and disgust in terms of positive vs. negative emotions, older children initially understand embarrassment, pride, and shame as a part of emotion categories that they already have.  Children (4-10 years) were asked to say how people felt when shown facial expression or told brief stories describing situations that cause these emotions.  Younger children labeled anger, contempt, disgust, and shame as angry and they labeled embarrassment as sad.  Gradually, children distinguished among the emotions and the oldest children used the expected label for all emotions (except contempt, which they labeled as angry).

So, when the 2-year-old in the sheep’s-eyeball-soup example we began with said that the man was angry, she was not wrong.  Within her understanding of emotions, the man was experiencing a negative emotion and her word for negative emotions is angry.  This response represents her current level of emotion understanding but it is also an opportunity for you to teach her something new – what disgust is.  A variety of school-based interventions work to explicitly teach children about emotions and to increase their emotion vocabulary and social skills.  Children are ready to learn about emotions and children who participate in these interventions develop stronger social and emotional skills and have improved grades than children who do not.

 Photo credit: Photo sourced from flickr via Creative Commons License

Temperament: A Marker for Asthma?

Katie Chun

Have you noticed that certain people tend to get sick, while others do not? Think back to when you were a kid and schools gave out “perfect attendance” awards. Kids who were sick a lot could only dream of this award, while others received this award every single year. Questions about variation in health extend beyond just asking “who gets sick” to also ask “who gets sicker?”. Two people can be exposed to the same bug and one ramps up a significant immune response, knocking him out of work for a week with illness while the other just goes about her normal business as if nothing happened. There are countless examples of how our immune systems react in different ways.

There are lots of potential reasons that people’s immune function differs, but one possibility is that temperament or personality is associated with health. For example, personality traits related to negative affect (i.e. anxiety, hostility) have been consistently related to increased risk for illness. Another example is behavioral inhibition, which is a temperament style commonly studied in children that is similar to shyness. Behaviorally inhibited children tend to avoid social situations and react negatively to new situations. Kids who are behaviorally inhibited as infants and toddlers have a greater risk for developing anxiety later in life than those who are not behaviorally inhibited. In addition to anxiety, behavioral inhibition has also been associated with the development of asthma, a disease characterized by inappropriate responses in the immune system. Unfortunately, the exact way that asthma and behavioral inhibition are related is not yet known.

In a series of studies that I conducted as part of my doctoral work, we used a monkey model to try and understand the link Copyright Kathy West CNPRC 2015between behavioral inhibition and asthma. A common measure of asthma is how sensitive the lungs are to things that enter them (e.g., air pollutants, or aerosols). In asthmatics, the lungs are really reactive, causing constriction and decreasing airflow to produce an asthma attack. We first demonstrated that monkeys that were less likely to socialize with peers and who had more intense reactions to novel situations tended to have more reactive airways (an indicator of asthma) than control monkeys. That is—behavioral patterns associated with social behavior and emotion predicted who had a robust airway response. Interestingly, there was no relationship between behavioral inhibition and common asthma-related immune markers (e.g., immune cell numbers, inflammatory proteins). One possibility is that the relationship between behavioral inhibition and asthmatics is produced not by the immune system per se, but by the autonomic nervous system—the system that controls your heart, lungs, and guts and produces “fight or flight” and “rest and relax” responses to stimuli in the environment. Both behavioral inhibition and asthma have been related to alterations in the autonomic nervous system. It may be that alterations in the autonomic nervous system are a common link between behavioral inhibition and sensitive airways, which could be further investigated in future studies to sort out these mechanisms.

The take home message from our study, in concert with accumulating evidence from other research groups, is that variation in emotional life is related to health. Understanding the causal relationships between emotion and health (e.g., does emotional temperament like behavioral inhibition lead to reactive airways or do animals with reactive airways become behaviorally inhibited?) is the next critical step in this research program and will hopefully lead to interventions to promote well-being.

Photo credit: Kathy West CNPRC-UC Davis, copyright 2013

Awe and Order

Carlo Valdesolo

When do we feel awe? And what kinds of behaviors and beliefs does this emotional state motivate? Recent research has explored these questions in a variety of ways and several themes have begun to emerge. First, we feel awe when in the presence of something it is hard to wrap our minds around, whether this be the infinite depths of space, a beautiful piece of art, or a striking double rainbow. And these failures to assimilate information into our knowledge structures can elicit deep feelings of uncertainty and confusion, motivating us to imbue our environment with order and predictability. In short, awe makes us want to know what does it all mean? And while research has shown that we can satisfy this motivation in a variety of ways, we often turn to one of two dominant explanatory frameworks in our attempts to do so: religion and science.

The relationship between awe and religiosity or spirituality has been demonstrated before. For example, a recent paper by Jesse Graham and I tested the effect of awe on agency detection – that is, the tendency to infer that a stimulus must have been designed by an intentional agent, like a human or a God. We predicted that the uncertainty people feel when they experience awe will cause them to detect supernatural agents, like Gods and ghosts.

We conducted three studies that tested these predictions. In general, participants across these studies were made to feel either awe, amusement or a neutral emotional state, then they completed an individual difference measure known to measure their ability to tolerate feelings of uncertainty, and finally they were then asked to indicate their belief in supernatural agents. Across these studies we found consistent support for our hypotheses. Awe made participants less tolerant of uncertainty (compared to participants in the other conditions), and in turn these feelings of uncertainty led to increased agency detection in the domain of the supernatural. This suggests that one way we make sense of the awe-inspiring experiences in our lives that most deeply challenge our understanding of the world is through reinterpreting them as the product of some kind of intentional actor–by seeing agency even where there might be none.

But no work as of yet has examined the effect awe might have on attitudes towards scientific explanation. It’s possible that there is something 5854379112_3f237540dc_bunique about the relationship between awe and religion (a conceptual association, perhaps) that makes us exclusively more open to supernatural explanations, but that doesn’t change our affinity for secular explanations of the world. Alternatively, it might be that the effects of awe on explanation are not domain-specific. That is, awe motivates us to find order through any explanatory means available, religious or scientific. Research in my lab has begun to test this idea and we have preliminary support for the hypothesis. It appears that when we gaze upon the Grand Canyon, we might not just be more likely to believe in a grand designer, but also more attracted towards the geological principles explaining its creation. Of course, our affinity for one kind of explanation or the other will likely depend on a number of factors, not least of which are our existing ideological proclivities. If we have strong theistic, or atheistic, beliefs, experiencing awe will likely strengthen them. An interesting question for future research remains (especially for those of us who would like to promote interest in science), how might we nudge people towards one kind of explanation instead of the other?

Photo credit: picture by Moyan Brenn on Flickr "Grand Canyon" (C) 2011 Moyan Brenn

Emoting online – more than just smileys

Lisa Williams

Social media: love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. Speaking of love and hate, a surge of recent research has tackled core questions regarding emotional processes as they play out on social media.

How do we e-communicate our emotional states? Emoticons, and their more graphical cousins emoji, are one popular route. Since the 1980’s, online communicators have been using combinations of punctuation marks to convey sarcasm or a joking tone (e.g., “bugger off!” and “bugger off :-)” certainly convey different meanings). Recently, social psychologist Dacher Keltner teamed up with folks at Pixar to develop a ‘sticker’ set of animated emoji called Finch. Finches were designed to reflect the great variety of emotional experience that simply can’t be captured with semicolons, parentheses, and dashes, including love, sympathy, awe, jealousy, and embarrassment.

Not only are Finch emoji quite popular, analysis of their use presented by Dacher Keltner at the February meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology reveals fascinating trends around the world. Use of the ‘loving’ Finch is highly frequent in Russia and Mediterranean regions; use of the 93571524_43b1e4070f_o‘sympathetic’ Finch is highly frequent in Australia and the Americas. What can emotion communication tell us about a culture? Apparently, quite a bit.

Emotion communication in social media is of course not limited to emoticons and emoji. The words we use also convey how we felt about a past event, currently feel at the moment, or anticipate feeling in the future. Linguistic analysis of Facebook and Twitter posts reveals a great deal about users’ emotions. An intriguing interface at the World Wellbeing Project ( allows visitors to track word usage across age groups, including, but not limited to, words with emotional tone. Analyses are based on over 75,000 Facebook users. My own cursory analysis revealed that older users use ‘grateful’ more often and ‘angry’ less often than their younger counterparts. So, the informative nature of emotional e-communication isn’t just cultural – emotive language online varies according to age groups, genders, and personality traits.

It turns out that online emotive language is not just descriptive – it can serve as an indicator of a community’s level of wellbeing. Analysis of 148 million Twitter posts conducted by a team led by Johannes C. Eichstaedt revealed that communities whose residents tweet with angry language are communities high in risk for mortality from atherosclerotic heart disease. In fact, language on Twitter did a better job of predicting cardiac disease mortality than a set of 10 predictors including demographics (e.g., gender), socioeconomic variables (e.g., income), and health risk factors (e.g., smoking).

Complemented by findings that online emotions are ‘contagious,’ it becomes clear that emotional processes on social media are potent. Controversial Facebook experiment aside, the concept that emotions spread through social media networks has received robust empirical support. Analysis of 3.5 million Twitter-like posts from China (on Weibo) 5653817859_3567ac7c8f_orevealed that joy spreads quickly through the network, but is outpaced by anger. In another study conducted on millions of Facebook users, positive posts by one user increased positive posts by that user’s friends at a factor of 1.75 (and decreased negative posts at a factor of 1.80). The factor for one user’s negative posts increasing friends’ negative posts was 1.29 (and 1.26 for decreasing friends’ positive posts). Additional evidence for emotional contagion online comes from Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, who analyzed the viral nature of 7,000 New York Times online articles. Content that angered readers was more likely to be shared than those that saddened readers.

It’s not as dire as it may seem: in that latter study, NYT content that resulted in a sense of awe was also shared widely. Negativity is viral – but so two is positive content – especially that which ‘wows’ us.

This isn’t to say that we are passive users of social media, subject to the emotional whims of others. Indeed, we use social media as a forum for emotion regulation: research by Benjamin K. Johnson and Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick shows that, when in feeling a bit down, individuals seek out downward social comparisons to other social media users that might be worse off (apparently in an effort to feel better about ourselves).

The emotional tenor of online communication reveals a great deal about who we are as people, as cultures, and as humankind. Not only do we influence others, we are also influenced by the emotions we share via social media. Social scientists are just beginning to understand the emotion processes that play out in social media – we are at the exciting forefront of the era of ‘big data’.

Photo credits: and