University of Leuven, Belgium
What does your research focus on?
I study emotions, specifically I’ve been trying to make sense of the patterns with which our emotions change across time, and what we can learn from them to understand what makes people happy or miserable.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
My answer to the first question is silly: I applied for a PhD position on the topic of anger and got the job. I must admit there was nothing really premeditated about it — I don’t get angry easily myself — but I quickly became fascinated with the subject and now feel very lucky to be doing research in this field. I think that feelings and emotions are central to life and contribute enormously to whether or not we enjoy it. Yet there’s still so much we don’t know about emotions, especially about how they behave in daily life. Also, I rely on statistical modeling quite a lot (often in collaboration with people who know their numbers much more than I do). To me, this marriage between passion and reason — of being able to approach the world of feelings with the logic of mathematics — is a thing of beauty.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I’m fortunate to have met and collaborated with many wonderful people from around the world and I can say I’ve learned from each and every one of them. My PhD supervisor, Iven Van Mechelen, opened my eyes to the world of research and taught me not to be afraid to address complex problems. I just spent two years at the University of Melbourne, where I learned a lot from Nick Allen and Lisa Sheeber (Oregon Research Institute) about the role of emotion in depression and psychopathology. I’ve met many more inspirational people along the way, too many to mention. Several of them I met through conferences organized by the interdisciplinary International Society for Research on Emotion, which, by the way, I would heartily recommend to everyone doing research involving emotion or affect.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
To be honest, I never really considered myself that successful compared to many others out there, although I must say that my modesty took a beating by the invitation to appear on these pages. Otherwise, I guess what probably helps is liking what you’re doing, being open and curious, and taking opportunities to explore and discuss ideas with others. Getting your mind off work from time to time is important to me too and to achieve that, I try to work as efficiently as possible. I don’t think I work especially long hours, but I try to use them as effectively as I can.
What’s your future research agenda?
Together with my collaborators and students we just attracted funding to launch a large longitudinal study into the cognitive processes that underlie patterns of emotion dynamics in real life and how these, in turn, predict well-being and maladjustment. I think this will keep us busy for a while. I also hope it will bring new insights into factors determining emotional suffering and flourishing.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientist? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Number one is of course bribe your supervisors, reviewers and editors. I always carry cash and caviar at conferences, just in case I meet any. Other than that, make sure you’re working on something that genuinely interests you and that you enjoy. Talk to as many people as you can about your research. Aim high, but anticipate failing from time to time. Contrary to how it may seem, even the most impressive researchers encounter empirical puzzles or get papers rejected on a regular basis. Last but not least, realize how lucky you are to be in this line of work, where you can think freely and pursue your own ideas.
What publication you are most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Kuppens, P., Allen, N. B., & Sheeber, L. (2010). Emotional inertia and psychological maladjustment. Psychological Science, 21, 984-991.
The research reported in this paper really got me thinking about the different ways people’s emotion can change, and what this tells us about their emotional health.