Our brain is nothing short of a prediction machine. It is perpetually analyzing and adjusting the information coming across our senses.
Outside factors do not simply trigger emotions, as we might hear from the proponents of the triune brain myth. Instead, Feldman Barrett argues that our brain constructs emotions by connecting external data perceived via our senses and past experiences.
We do not merely react to so-called trigger situations, but we build and predict emotions today based on our yesterdays. That means today’s intentions and actions will become predictions for tomorrow’s intentions and actions. We can model and architect our tomorrows by sprinkling novel thoughts, concepts, experiences, activities today.
“Your brain’s most important job is not thinking or feeling or even seeing, but keeping your body alive and well so that you survive and thrive … How is your brain able to do this? Like a sophisticated fortune-teller, your brain constantly predicts. Its predictions ultimately become the emotions you experience and the expressions you perceive in other people.”
Feldman Barrett suggests in her book, How emotions are made, to become collectors of unique experiences. Some experiences are what you might expect (consuming media – movies, books, podcasts, articles, radio shows – outside of your comfort zone, or searching for better social exposure to people of different ages, nationalities, jobs). And then, Feldman Barrett writes that the easiest way to gain new concepts is by learning as many words as possible.
You’ve probably never thought about learning words as a path to greater emotional health, but it follows directly from the neuroscience of construction.
Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel. Therefore, the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs.
- Lisa Feldman Barrett
I believe becoming more skilled in emotional literacy is only the first step towards better well-being, the R in RAIN. RAIN is a common practice in secular meditation to mindfully handle emotions and is an acronym for:
Recognize the emotions
Allow the emotions
Investigate the emotions
either Non-Identification with emotions or Nurture the emotions, depending on the version. I will write more in-depth about RAIN in another article.
Suppose you only know the six basic emotions of sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust. That means you only have a broad brush to paint a complex mental landscape of your emotions or somebody’s else emotions.
Consider now that you know more than one word for happy or angry. For example, you might use content, cheerful, joyful, upbeat, jolly, gleeful, carefree, delighted, beaming, grinning, glowing, radiant, sunny, elated, euphoric, thrilled, relaxed, hopeful, inspired, grateful. Or you might use annoyed, cross, enraged, resentful, livid, bitter, pissed, grumpy, remorseful, afraid, envious, indignant.
Then, suppose our teenage child goes to school with dirty clothes and unwashed hair. What do we feel at that moment? Is it anger we feel? Or is it frustration – when will they ever learn to check their appearance? Perhaps hope it is yet another phase or curiosity about what might be hiding behind this behaviour? Embarrassment about what other parents might think, regret that our child is growing up too quickly? Envy, perhaps even resentment that we never dared to go out like that when we were their age?
Take, for example, the negative emotion of grief. Grief comes as a cloud, bringing contradicting emotions such as anger or perhaps relief even that the suffering of a terminally ill loved one came to an end, and shame of these feelings. Based on the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the late 1960s, we can discuss the five different “stages” of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
Kübler-Ross based her research not on grief felt at the loss of loved ones but on the observations of people with terminal diagnoses facing their imminent death. Also, Kübler-Ross herself wasn’t sure that grief follows a rigid 5-step approach because grief can be an endless circle. Grief can be suffering we never really overcome but a pain we learn to endure.
Another negative emotion fueled by self-doubt is guilt. Guilt (tracing back to German, geld – to pay) demands to pay our debts. There is, for example, the guilt of being a survivor of a car or plane crash when we start to believe we did something wrong by surviving a traumatic event. Or the children’s guilt who imagine they are responsible for their parents’ divorce, or a mother’s guilt going back to work after her maternity leave. Then, the guilt trips we send other people because, in most cases, as Maya Angelou wrote, we might eventually forget what other people did to us, but we will never forget how they made us feel.
The finer the brush we paint our emotional canvas, the larger the pool of emotion concepts the brain can choose from, so that the better our brain can predict, categorize and perceive emotions.
Patience “has beautiful hands. She wears her grandmother’s earrings. She bakes marvelous dark bread. She carries great sacks of peace. You don’t notice patience right away in a crowd, but suddenly you see her all at once and then she is so beautiful you wonder why you never saw before.”
Perfection “started feeling like she was falling apart and dissolving into space. This humbled her. She had never realized how strongly we resist being broken open. She discovered that her greatest strengths grew out of her strongest weaknesses. She needs to keep moving otherwise, she becomes swollen with her obsessions.”
Criticism “is a strict father. He adores his children, but he fears their spontaneity.”
Despair is “overworked and overwhelmed… In her mind, war is everywhere. She is not lying or exaggerating. Still, it is difficult to be around her. There is no arguing with her. She is persuasive, eloquent, and undeniably well-informed. If you attempt to change her mind, you will come away agreeing with her.”
When “courage walks, it is clear she has made the journey from loneliness to solitude.”
Beauty is “young and old at once, my daughter and my grandmother.”
Words hold tremendous power, and the way we use them subtly or grossly influences our thoughts, biases, feelings, actions, and decisions.
Feldman Barett suggested inventing our own emotions by using the lenses of our experiences. She wrote how author Jeffrey Eugenides presented new emotion concepts in his novel Middlesex such as “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age,” “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy,” and “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar”.
Following this advice and the whimsical descriptions from the book of qualities, here are some of my emotion concepts:
Northern-European languages usually have a specific word for feeling cosy (derived from the Gaelic còsag, a small hole you can creep into). The Danish Hygge describes a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, enjoying a feeling of togetherness with friends, warm and homely place, especially during a cold, rainy evening.
Tiffany Watt Smith, the author of The book of human emotions, specifies that sunny Mediterranean languages don’t easily replace hygge-like emotions.
Han is described as such deeply Korean emotion there is no equivalent for it in the English language. It is often translated as a collective internalized feeling of suffering, deep sorrow, grief, anger and hope, based on the country’s long history of colonisation, oppression and pain.
Novelist Park Kyung-ni writes, ‘If we lived in paradise, there would be no tears, no separation, no hunger, no waiting, no suffering, no oppression, no war, no death. We would no longer need either hope or despair … We Koreans call these hopes han … I think it means both sadness and hope at the same time.’
Indigenous Utku people of Canada don’t make a difference between feeling kindness and gratitude, and they have one word to express both feelings: Hatuq. In English, a translation can be the phenomenon of “paying it forward” from the positive psychology literature.
Hiraeth (literal translation is long gone) is a Welsh word that describes the grief and sadness of over the lost or departed, combined with nostalgia and love for the homeland. Other associated feelings are the German Sehnsucht or Portuguese Saudade.
In French, l’ésprit d’escalier (“staircase wit” in English) is that splendid comeback we are thinking of when we are already on the stairs on our way out of the scene.
The German Schadenfreude (literal translation harm-joy) is a complex emotion that looks like an unexpected thrill, a tiny pulse of excitement, an illicit delight of another person’s bad luck.
Cyberchondria is anxiety about an illness’ symptoms fueled amplified by internet research.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) is the perception that others might lead a better life, having more fun, enjoying better things than you. Social media sites such as Instagram or Facebook often fuel this emotion.
The opposite of FOMO is JOMO, the joy of missing out, the pleasure and excitement of living a quiet, independent life without the anxiety of missing out on events happening elsewhere.
Another fear is FOBO or the fear of a better option. This feeling describes the analysis paralysis when we try to decide, the downward spiral of obsessive researching and optimizing almost every facet of our lives.
Friyay (Friday Yay!) is the excitement about a Friday, usually the last weekday of work in a capitalist society. It can be applied to other days of the week: SaturYAY, SunYAY, TuesYAY, WednesYAY, and ThursYAY. Unfortunately, there is no MonYAY.
Ringxiety is the low-level anxiety that leads us to think we’ve heard our phone ring, even though there was no call.
Spark joy, popularized by Marie Kondo, translates as feeling a small thrill or genuine happiness when you appreciate books, clothes, household objects, etc. According to Kondo, reorganizing your home by discarding things that do not spark joy leads to a more organized household and a happier lifestyle. Of course, this feeling is not without criticism. If I were to throw away all the kitchen utensils that did not bring me joy, I would only keep dessert spoons, the butter knife and the cheese grater.
Emotional granularity is the ability to distinguish between the different shades of a person’s emotions. The more granular the emotional palette, the more we can act more appropriately and effectively. And emotional granularity does not help us identify our emotions, but it helps to understand the emotions of others.
Labelling our emotions is a powerful mental tool because, as we move emotions into words, we also shift our thinking from emotions to more rational cognitions.
We can even frame those emotions to better serve us instead of us reacting blindly to them. By learning and applying new words and mental concepts, we don’t react to what happens to us. Instead, we might decide to stop, analyze, acknowledge, ask questions, adapt, strategize, organize, devise, or revise.
This process can lead to a trajectory of meaning and understanding, Ariadne’s thread to guide us through the labyrinth of our lives, an escape from the Newtonian rules of action and reaction.
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/how-learning-new-words-can-lead-to-better-well-being/