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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Study finds having purpose in life may increase emotional resilience

UW’s pioneering research investigates well-being, feeling of belonging, emotional response time
Joey Reuteman

The U.S. has seen increased cases of mental illness, raising public and academic discourse about mental health — some of which is being addressed at the University of Wisconsin with initiatives like the Midlife in the United States study and the Emotion and Wellness study. Project leader of MIDUS Stacey Schaefer said these projects will continue the evolution of research on emotional wellbeing — a relatively new field with much to uncover.

More than one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness and more than 60% of college students in the U.S. meet the criteria for at least one mental illness, underscoring the urgent need for action and research in the field of mental health, according to the American Psychological Association.

“People thought that depression and anxiety are really just about negative emotions, but what’s been coming out more and more in our field is really how important positive emotion is,” Schaefer said.


While the immediate effects of mental illnesses and emotion have been thoroughly researched, the long-term health effects remain ambiguous, Schaeffer said. Projects like MIDUS and the Emotion and Wellness study aim to answer these mysteries, delving into how emotional responses shape psychophysiological health over time.

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In MIDUS, participants experience various non-invasive tests, including exposure to positive and negative stimuli, monitored through techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging and facial muscle movements analysis, Schaefer said.

fMRI is a scanning tool used to map the brain’s activity. Researchers used fMRI to examine brain activity in regions like the amygdala — the region in the brain responsible for regulating anxiety, fear conditioning and emotional memory, according to NIH.

By examining brain activity in regions like the amygdala, researchers aim to understand how emotions are processed and how they influence physiological responses developing spatial patterns, Schaefer said.

The spatial patterns identified in the fMRI scans were cross-referenced with participants’ facial muscle responses, focusing on the corrugator supercilii muscles, which lie along the inner brow, according to Schaefer. This muscle tends to activate more strongly in response to emotional stimuli.

The researcher’s analysis revealed a clear correlation between corrugator activity and the perception of negativity — heightened corrugator activity corresponds with negative stimuli, highlighting the link between physiological reactions and emotional responses.

According to Schaefer, similar methodologies were employed in the Emotion and Wellness study. Through affective chronometry — the emotional experiences recorded over a period of time — researchers examined how quickly or slowly a person responds to emotional stimuli, particularly in times of stress.

One of the experiment’s participants took part in a social stress test in which they performed advanced mental math, delivered a speech and completed a job interview in front of a set of unresponsive and intimidating judges, Schaefer said. Afterward, researchers collected several saliva samples over a period of time to measure cortisol, the stress hormone, levels and its regulation and reactivity.

The analysis of the Emotion and Wellness study is ongoing, but the research has the potential to shed light on why certain individuals are susceptible to mood disorders while others display resilience in the face of adversity, according to the Center for Healthy Minds.

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In a separate endeavor, UW graduate student Michelle Marji is at the forefront of research conducted at the Niedenthal Emotions Lab. In collaboration with her colleagues, Marji worked on the “Marching in Sync: Large Group Coordination and Social Connection” study, an investigation into the UW marching band’s synchronized movements and their impact on emotional bonding.

Researchers recorded movement and spatial positioning during the band’s practice, measuring how coordinated and how synchronous the band performed, Marji said. The results were then compared to responses from band members on specific social connections within the band.

In her exploration, Marji uncovered a profound link between group synchrony and feelings of belonging among band members. The study emphasizes the pivotal role of belonging in shaping mental well-being and its possible implications on academic performance and social connections, Marji said.

“In general, it’s a stressful time we’re in right now … and I think feelings of belonging can permeate all avenues of our life,” Marji said.

Reflecting on the broader context of her work, Marji said there are psychological implications to the pervasive stressors of contemporary life and the transformative power of belonging across various facets of existence.

Exploring purpose in life is a quintessential human experience with a direct impact on emotional responses, Schaefer said. In a comprehensive study conducted as part of the MIDUS project, participants were presented with statements probing their outlook on life, ranging from ‘I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future,’ to ‘I have a sense of direction and purpose in life.’

The longitudinal analysis yielded compelling findings — individuals lacking a strong sense of purpose, regardless of their current age, faced an increased likelihood of death in the next 10 years, according to Schaefer. It became evident that nurturing a sense of purpose in life holds the potential to modulate the brain’s response to emotional stimuli, thereby influencing emotional regulation.

“Purpose in life is a wellbeing factor has been shown to be helpful for so many things,” Schaefer said. “We see better emotion regulation and its ties to longevity.”

As the U.S. grapples with rising rates of mental illness, these research endeavors offer insight to longevity and well-being, Schaefer said. By deepening their understanding of emotions and social dynamics, scientists inch closer to cultivating the grounds for a society where mental well-being is prioritized and supported for all.

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