Sometimes when Anthony Ong, a new faculty member in the Department of Human Development, is traveling, strangers will ask what he does for a living.
"I'm a psychologist," he replies.
"So maybe you can tell what's wrong with me?" strangers typically ask.
Even if the assistant professor of human development (and a faculty affiliate in the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center and the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging) were a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist (which he is not), he wouldn't even venture a guess. Ong, who is embarking on a new set of experiments--to learn how emotional states of mind influence physical and mental well-being--is more interested in what's right with people.
Adapting to Stress
Why, Ong wonders, do some people facing terrible stresses--excruciating-pain from cancer, for instance--keep looking to the sunny side of life? And why do others flinch at the approach of yet another unbearable stressor, wallow in self-pity, and accept a dreadful fate?
It may have something to do with the complex interplay between our positive and negative emotions. "Our ability to feel contradictory emotions such as happiness and grief, as well as anger and gratitude may reveal a deeper truth about ourselves--our human capacity for resilience in the face of life's adversities," Ong suggests.
Ong offers new insights into how positive and negative emotions can influence health and illness and demonstrates the wide applicability of this perspective in various domains across the lifespan. His research has appeared in journals such as Child Development, Journal of Adolescence, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, and Psychology and Aging.
Cheerful and in his 30s, Ong says he got into this line of work "to learn how to age gracefully." He asks his experimental participants to keep diaries: some diarists in his studies at the University of Notre Dame have been chronicling their emotional states for 10 years and are now 55 years old. Entries in their diaries are not random musings; rather, participants are asked to respond to standard questions at the same time each day. One self-assessment to gauge social connectedness asks diarists about the accuracy of a statement like: "I know that I can trust my friends, and they know they can trust me."
The Healthy Side of Normal
Diarists experiencing negative emotions might report their feelings with words such as afraid, ashamed, distressed, guilty, hostile, irritable, jittery, nervous, scared, or upset. In contrast, daily positive emotions are characterized by adjectives such as active, alert, attentive, determined, enthusiastic, excited, inspired, interested, proud, or strong.
People who report feeling distressed and determined in the same day--or guilty and proud--aren't nuts, Ong emphasizes. They're probably on the healthy side of normal because they have achieved what some psychologists call a state of mindfulness. They have the ability to be aware of their present surroundings and emotions in a nonjudgmental fashion, Ong explains. "Mindful individuals can reconcile and even embrace contradictory emotions in all of their complexity."
Ong believes that people in a healthy state of mindfulness--recognizing that life is a bowl of cherries but that pits can break your teeth--can willfully choose to focus on their positive emotions. And maybe even expedite their healing. Or at least ease their pain.
"It's not an easy thing to do," Ong admits. "People living with chronic stressors, such as pain, never know when it will hit. It's one of the toughest kind of stresses around and one of life's great challenges, which is why we're interested in people's emotional states at times like that. …