Whenever I feel bad, I can’t help but believe that I will feel bad forever. After we elected Donald Trump on Tuesday, I felt very bad.
But I also know that self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate. Negative emotions feel overwhelming in the moment, but they almost always wane. So just how long will it be before I, and others who are unhappy with this outcome, go back to some semblance of normal?
For some clues to that answer, we can look at an interesting study done by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies how the language we use connects to our mental states. For this study, published in 2004 in Psychological Science, Pennebaker’s team analyzed how people’s blog entries changed after the 9/11 attacks, and how long it took for them to go back to normal. Previous research shows that the way we write and the types of words we use correlate with our feelings. As a result, this type of analysis can answer questions like how 9/11 affected people’s lives and how long the emotional impact lasted. It’s real-time data that is more accurate than asking people how long they felt bad years after the fact.
People became more negative and thoughtful right after the attacks
Pennebaker looked at the public entries of a little more than 1,000 LiveJournal users. Keep in mind that this was the early 2000s, when LiveJournal was big. (In fact, the language used in the paper is rather charming: “One recent Internet phenomenon is on-line journaling. Users publish their ongoing personal diaries, known as Weblogs or ‘blogs,’ on a Web site where they can be read and discussed by others.”) They downloaded four months of entries: two months of entries before the attacks and two after — for a total of about 26 million words in over 70,000 entries.
Next, the researchers ran the entries through a program that sorts through all the words and puts them into different linguistic categories. A word can be sorted based on whether it conveys positive or negative emotion, is a more cognitive word (“think,” “question,” “why”), or a more social word (“talk,” “share,” “friends”), and so on. (Words can be in more than one category.)
One result was not surprising: the attacks horrified everyone. Right after 9/11, the writers had far more negative emotions, but they were also thoughtful and more socially engaged than usual. After two weeks, though, their moods — at least as measured by their diary entries — were mostly back to the level they were before the attacks. They used analytical words even less than they had before 9/11 and they went back to their old level of social engagement.
It’s important to note that this analysis looked at the types of words being used overall, even if they weren’t about 9/11. The negative effects were stronger for people who were clearly thinking and writing a lot about the attacks; these people took longer to go back to normal. But even if someone was writing about something completely unrelated to the attacks, chances are that for two weeks the entries were still more negative and thoughtful.
There are limits to the study. Though the researchers used data from both sexes, and though demographic research from the time suggests that LiveJournal users are pretty representative, the average age was 24.7, which is still quite young. There are also very big differences between the 9/11 attacks and this election. For one, the election built up for over a year, while the attacks were sudden and unexpected. The elections have made the country’s divisions clear, while the attacks created a more clear “us versus them” dynamic. And even though the worst of the shock seems to have worn off in two weeks, it’s obvious that many deeper psychological impacts of 9/11 lasted much longer.
Still, the Pennebaker study provides clues as to what’s next for our emotional health after this election. Depending on how you see it, that could be good or bad news. It might be a relief for some that feelings of extreme anxiety and hopelessness might fade fairly quickly. Others might be angry thinking that after such a big upset, many people might “recover” so quickly and possibly lose momentum and motivation to create change. For those who feel the latter way, take heart: you don’t necessarily need to feel bad to create change.