How are you feeling right now? And how do you wish you were feeling?
Not everyone gives the same answer to that second question. Different people value different emotional states.
Some people seek out high-arousal emotional states like excitement and enthusiasm while others strive for low-arousal states like calmness, relaxation and peacefulness. Psychologists call the ideal type of mood that someone values above all others their ideal affect.
As we go through life, our ideal affect tends to change. A 2013 study found that younger people value both high-arousal and low-arousal positive moods equally on average, whereas older people prioritize low-arousal emotional states like relaxation. In everyday life, older people also tend to have less of a gap between how they feel and their ideal affect, how they’d like to feel.
More recently, a study published in the journal Emotion found that people’s ideal affect correlates with certain aspects of their mental health.
For example, people who value high-arousal positive emotional states have fewer symptoms of depression, but also have more symptoms of anxiety and of alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, people who value high-arousal negative emotional states (like anger) have more symptoms of anxiety.
These results suggest that while we often talk about what people are actually feeling, what people would like to be feeling might be a hidden but important dimension of how they experience life.
Along these lines, previous research has suggested that people’s ideal affect can shape their personal preferences. In particular, a 2014 study found that people selected doctors based on their ideal affect. People who valued high-arousal positive moods perceived doctors as more trustworthy when their personalities matched those preferences, and tended to choose to work with those doctors. People who valued low-arousal positive moods, meanwhile, chose doctors who matched those preferences.
Interestingly, people’s actual moods weren’t relevant in making this decision – only their ideal moods. When it comes to understanding the choices people make, then, what they feel isn’t the whole story – what they want to feel may also be important.
Image: Flickr/Mandeep Singh