People who sigh more often do not tend to suffer more depressive symptoms compared to those who sigh less, according to new findings published in the Journal of Personality Research. The study, which used mobile devices to track sighing, casts doubt on claims that frequently letting out your breath is a general indicator of negative emotional states.
“This study combined two of my interests: understanding nonverbal behavior and improving scientific practices in psychology. Sighing is a common nonverbal behavior, and it was very cool to be able to look at data that captured how often people do it ‘in the wild’ through audio recordings on their phones,” said study author Alexander Danvers of the University of Arizona, who maintains a blog at Psychology Today.
“This study was also a replication of previous work, conducted on a small sample of women, using a much larger sample that represents a wider range of people,” he added. “Although historically psychology has not placed much value on studies that attempt to replicate results, there is a growing movement that realizes we often need to repeat studies and use larger samples to be able to make more reliable, definitive statements about how people work. This felt like both an interesting question to explore, and a way to improve the reliability of psychology research.”
An initial survey of 350 individuals confirmed that people who sigh more frequently are assumed to be more stressed, anxious, depressed, lonely, tired, and neurotic. To test this perceived association, Danvers and his colleagues had 510 participants carry a mobile device with an app installed that recorded ambient sounds throughout the day, allowing the researchers to objectively measure the number of times an individual sighed. The participants also completed psychological assessments of depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress, and fatigue.
But Danvers and his colleagues found no evidence that more frequent sighing was associated with greater levels of negative emotions. Surprisingly, among men, more frequent sighing was actually associated with lower depressive symptoms and less loneliness.
“The big takeaway from our study is that people who sigh more are not more depressed. They are also not more anxious, more stressed, or lonelier. There was a slight tendency for people who sighed more to be more tired, but this was a weak effect that shouldn’t be treated as definitive,” Danvers told PsyPost.
“This is different from statements we’ve seen online in psychology forums, where clinicians and self-help columnists tend to say that sighing a lot means someone is unhappy or dealing with mental illness. Those statements were consistent with a small initial study with 13 people, but this study, which includes data from 510 people, allows us to more definitively say that people who sigh a lot aren’t unhappy.”
While the frequency of sighing was not linked to overall distress levels, it is still possible that within-person changes in sighing frequency could be a sign of certain changes in mood.
“One big caveat in our work is that we were looking at an overall tendency to sigh measured across several days, and how that relates to feeling negative in general,” Danvers explained. “It is still possible that if someone is sighing more or less than usual — compared to their own baseline level — that person is feeling more negative in that specific moment. While our data suggest you shouldn’t use frequent sighing to diagnose someone or say something about their personality, it might be ok to infer from a sigh that a person’s mood has shifted in the moment.”
The new findings also highlight the importance of attempting to replicate previous research.
“Psychology as a field is dealing with what has been described as a ‘replication crisis,’ where many results reported in the scientific literature can’t be reliably repeated by others,” Danvers said. “When results can’t replicate, we should be skeptical that they can tell us something reliable about how people work in general. Part of the reason this happens is because psychology journal editors have been reluctant to publish replications that contradict earlier findings but provide better evidence.”
A 2017 study that investigated 1,151 psychology journals found that only 33 of them explicitly stated that they welcomed replication studies for publication.
“We saw some of this first hand in our own submission process, as our manuscript was rejected multiple times before being published,” Danvers noted. “I want to thank the editorial team at the Journal of Personality Research for allowing us to publish a much stronger study that ‘corrects the record’ on sighing and depression, allowing science to move forward in a slower but more reliable way.”
The study, “Is Frequent Sighing an Indicator of Dispositional Negative Emotionality? A Multi-Sample, Multi-Measure Naturalistic-Observation Study“, was authored by Alexander F. Danvers, Anne Milek, Allison M. Tackman, Deanna M. Kaplan, Megan L. Robbins, Angelina Poslinelli, Suzanne Moseley, Charles L. Raison, David Sbarra, and Matthias R. Mehl.