While some of us may be generally happier than others, all of us experience different emotions from day to day. A fascinating new study suggests that these fluctuations are due to two factors: a cycling of emotion levels across the working week, and our unique personal sensitivity to both good and bad daily events. The study even has hurricanes.
Daniel J. Beal and Louma Ghandour from Rice University set out to track the daily affect patterns of participants from an IT services company. They were particularly interested in how intrinsic task motivation – how fulfilling the participants found their work that day – influenced emotion or affect. Ten days in, Hurricane Ike struck the region. Recommencing some weeks later, the study also took the chance to examine how this negative one-off event influenced matters.
The 65 participants completed 21 end-of-day surveys (prompted by an email reminder), rating intrinsic task motivation, together with how much they felt emotional states like frustrated, discouraged, happy and proud. As per other recent research, the negative emotions showed a cyclical pattern, peaking at Wednesday with a projected bottoming out on Saturday; positive emotions showed the inverse pattern. There were also individual differences in average scores: some people are generally more frustrated than others.
The authors also calculated each participant’s ‘affect spin’, a measure of day-to-day emotional volatility, a high score meaning that person experienced a wide range of different affect states from day to day. The authors found that having a motivating day's work affected that day’s positive mood for everyone, but individuals with high affect spin saw a kind of positive hangover into the next day as well.
After Hurricane Ike, everyone experienced lower levels of positive affect. This began to recover as the event receded into the past, but not for those with high affect spin, who seemed to be suffering a longer hangover again, but this time with negative consequences.
Individual differences in emotional state matter, and this study reminds us that we don't just differ on average, but also in how dynamically our mood responds to events. It's possible that offering a fascinating problem to your reactive employee on a Monday will generate benefits that carry forward, and battle the mid-week dip. The authors conclude that “mapping the terrain of positive and negative affective events and their implications for worker well-being can help to ground the field of organizational psychology in a truly experiential understanding of work life.”
Beal, D., & Ghandour, L. (2011). Stability, change, and the stability of change in daily workplace affect Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32 (4), 526-546 DOI: 10.1002/job.713