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Are You in Despair? That’s Good

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | June 3, 2016

WHEN the world gets you down, do you feel just generally “bad”? Or do you have more precise emotional experiences, such as grief or despair or gloom?

In psychology, people with finely tuned feelings are said to exhibit “emotional granularity.When reading about the abuses of the Islamic State, for example, you might experience creeping horror or fury, rather than general awfulness. When learning about climate change, you could feel alarm tinged with sorrow and regret for species facing extinction. Confronted with this year’s presidential campaign, you might feel astonished, exasperated or even embarrassed on behalf of the candidates — an emotion known in Mexico as “pena ajena.”

Emotional granularity isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary; it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely. This can make a difference in your life. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence that precisely tailored emotional experiences are good for you, even if those experiences are negative.

According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the benefits of high emotional granularity are not only psychological. People who achieve it are also likely to have longer, healthier lives. They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label and understand their emotions.

My lab discovered emotional granularity in the 1990s. We asked hundreds of volunteers to keep track of their emotional experiences for weeks or months. Everyone we tested used the same stock of emotion words, such as “sad” and “angry” and “afraid,” to describe their experiences. However, we found that some people used these words to refer to distinct experiences — each word represented a different emotion concept — while other people lumped these words together as a single concept meaning, roughly, “I feel miserable.”

It was natural to think that people with higher emotional granularity were just better at recognizing emotional states in themselves, but our lab found that this was not what was happening. Your brain, it turns out, in a very real sense constructs your emotional states — in the blink of an eye, outside of your awareness — and people who learn diverse concepts of emotion are better equipped to create more finely tailored emotions.

This is why emotional granularity can have such influence on your well-being and health: It gives your brain more precise tools for handling the myriad challenges that life throws at you.

Suppose you’re a resident of Flint, Mich., facing that city’s troubles with water contamination. Suppose that each morning, as you turn on the tap or send your children off to school, you experience an unpleasant feeling of general badness. You are overcome and sink further into a funk.

It’s important to note that you’ve created that vague feeling of badness. Neuroscience has shown that human brains are not “reactive” organs that merely respond to the world in some predetermined way, such as spiking your blood pressure when you see the word “ISIS.” Rather, your brain regulates your body’s energy needs proactively, spiking your blood pressure in anticipation of what might come next, based on past experience.

This process is like keeping a budget for your body. And just like a financial budget, a body budget needs to be kept balanced in order to be healthy.

So in the Flint example, your brain anticipates a threat and your cortisol level spikes, readying your body for action, but a feeling of general badness calls for no specific action. You merely feel awful because your brain has made a needless withdrawal from your body budget. And the next time you’re in a similar situation, your brain goes through the same process. Again you feel lousy and trapped by your circumstances. Over time, a poorly calibrated body budget can pave the road to illness.

With higher emotional granularity, however, your brain may construct a more specific emotion, such as righteous indignation, which entails the possibility of specific actions. You might telephone a friend and rant about the water crisis. You might Google “lead poisoning” to learn how to better protect your children. You might call your member of Congress and demand change. You are no longer an overwhelmed spectator but an active participant. You have choices. This flexibility ultimately reduces wear and tear on your body (e.g., unnecessary surges of cortisol).

The good news is that emotional granularity is a skill, and many people can increase theirs by learning new emotion concepts. I mean this literally: learning new words and their specific meanings. If you weren’t familiar with the term “pena ajena” that I mentioned earlier, for example, you’ve now increased your potential for granularity. Schoolchildren who learn more emotion concepts have improved social behavior and academic performance, as research by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence shows. If you incorporate such concepts into your daily life, your brain will learn to apply them automatically.

Emotion concepts are tools for living. The bigger your tool kit, the more flexibly your brain can anticipate and prescribe actions, and the better you can cope with life.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, is a University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University, and a member of the CLBB Scientific Faculty. 

Read the full article, originally published in The New York Times.