Say What? The Psychological Power of Words

Man holding his hand in front of his mouth with a surprised expression on his face.

Take a quick moment and reflect on the two most recent conversations you had. How did you feel following the conversation? What was the tone of the conversation? Uplifting? Heavy? Inspirational? Stressful? Energising? Now, more importantly, did you converse in a more positive or negative tone?

Turns out, the words we use have a profound impact on both our mental and physical wellbeing. A recent study by Vine and colleagues (2020) found that people who tend to use more positive language when describing their emotional states, had both better emotional and physical health. Positive words like joyful, gleeful, happy, excited, were also associated with personality traits like openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Conversely, people who tend to describe their emotional experiences using more negative language tend to feel more sad, depressed, and negative. Moreover, those using negative words to describe their emotions also reported higher neuroticism, depression, and poorer physical health.

More surprisingly was that the words you use tend to feedback into your emotional state. When Vine and colleagues (2020) had participants write essays, those using sad language became more sad and those using fearful language, reported being more fearful.

Over recent years there has been an increased focus on expanding our emotional vocabulary, and helping people learn to label their emotions more accurately. However, I find that these labelling interventions often tend to focus on the labelling of negative emotional experiences, almost disregarding the positive emotional experiences — because they are not worth ‘worrying’ about, right? The belief that positive emotions don’t require us to take any action (we can just enjoy them), whereas negative emotions do (because we need to get rid of them). Turns out, this is not the case!

Going forward, it may be as imporant — if not more important — to help people improve on labelling positive emotional experiences, not just negative ones. If you only focus on your negative emotional experiences, this will form a vicious feedback loop where daily nuaced emotions will be labelled negatively. Consequently, creating a predominantly negative emotional state.

How to improve this? Add positive language into your day wherever you can. Catch yourself when you find yourself only engaging in negative talk with others. Read literature that uses a lot of positive language. This will also help you improve your own positive language vocabulary.

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