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Humanities researchers at QMUL awarded £1.6 million for major study on emotional health

What is the perfect recipe for 'emotional health', and who decides which emotions we should feel in order to be healthy? These are among the questions that will be explored by a team of researchers at QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions, as part of a major new research programme funded by a Humanities and Social Science Collaborative Award from the Wellcome Trust.

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The Living with Feeling project will explore how scientists and doctors, philosophers and politicians, patients and parents have grappled with emotions in relation to health, historically and in contemporary society.

The project, which is funded for five years, will connect the history and philosophy of medicine and emotions with contemporary science, medical practice, and public policy. Research topics will include the anatomy of anger as a modern emotion; the rise of the psychologist parent; time-management and de-cluttering as emotional technologies; the roles of imitation, contagion, and mirror neurons in emotional life; and the relationships between religious, philosophical and scientific forms of therapy.

Dr Thomas Dixon, Principal Investigator and Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions, explains: “We will examine and analyse how different social groups have felt and perceived emotions like anger, worry, love, sadness, fear, and ecstasy, in both the past and the present.”

“One of our focuses will be the history of ideas about emotional health as applied to children over the last hundred years, and in contemporary policy. The central finding of a 2014 study by Richard Layard and his team at the LSE was that while income levels could explain only one per cent of the variation in adult life satisfaction, about 16 per cent could be accounted for by childhood levels of ‘emotional health’. Emotional health emerges from that study as the single most important factor in determining life satisfaction.”

“Findings like these raise fascinating and important questions in the context of our work on emotions,” Dr Dixon says. “Who decided that temper tantrums, crying behaviour, anxiety, anger, bedwetting, fearfulness, solitariness, or dislike of school constitute ‘unhealthy’ emotional reactions in young children? And why are headaches, stomach-ache, biliousness or disturbed sleep considered measures of poor emotional health in 5 and 10 year-olds?”

The £1.6 million project grant will facilitate collaborations with many colleagues and centres at QMUL, including a series of policy days on emotional health and contemporary society organised with QMUL’s Mile End Institute.

“It’s not only the emotions of patients and citizens, but of our leaders too, that have come under increasing scrutiny”, Dr Dixon says. ”We should pity modern politicians who are expected to empathise, to express emotions, to shed real tears and voice authentic anger – and yet in a way that seems healthy and human rather than unsteady or even deranged. Where did our beliefs about this kind of delicate emotional balance come from, and what do they say about our society?”

The project’s core team includes Dr Rhodri Hayward, Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine, and Dr Elena Carrera, Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies. The award will also fund three PhD studentships, and three Research Fellows: Jules Evans, Dr Emma Sutton, and Dr Tiffany Watt-Smith.  

• The grant is one of two Wellcome Trust awards. For more information visit the Trust’s website
• The Centre for the History of the Emotions is based at QMUL’s School of History

For media information, contact:

Paul Jordan
Faculty Communications Manager (HSS)