“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.” -Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett
Last August, my classes and I read a short article from Psychology Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett as we sailed off into poetry. I think we should be careful about dividing thought into departments: sure, there are different fields with different landmarks, but all these fields share the same soil and a playing child runs happily between them.
The article’s about “emotional granularity:” the ability to precisely identify and describe your own emotions. Someone with low emotional granularity might sometimes feel ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ Someone with high emotional granularity might sometimes feel ‘joyous,’ ‘content,’ ‘accomplished,’ ‘fortunate,’ ‘determined,’ ‘frustrated,’ ‘worn thin,’ or ‘thespian,’ to name a few. And all of those would be different. (And yes–you can definitely feel thespian. I work with drama kids, and some of them feel thespian an awful lot).
Professor Barrett claims that our brains actively construct emotions, which serve as tools to help us through the day. Emotions are the horses that pull our intellectual cart: they’re also the guardian angels that bring out flaming swords when our loved ones are threatened, and the little fairy-lights (“hope”) that dance ahead of us, encouraging us to keep trying. If you practice feeling, differentiating, and understanding different emotions, then your brain has all different characters to send to your side. You have lots of different emotional tools. If you don’t practice all that, then you have a screwdriver called happiness and a hammer called sadness, and whenever you run across a bolt, a rivet, or an unhappy child, you hit it with the screwdriver or the hammer and wonder what’s wrong.
I don’t mean to use science to prove art–as far as I’m concerned, they both have legs to run with. I do mean to point out another way that they play together. According to Professor Barrett’s research, increased emotional granularity improves your health–and not just your psychological health. Physically, your body operates better when you know and can experience different emotions. The health benefits don’t just come from “good” feelings, either: even a more nuanced experience of “negative” emotions is good for you. (Soon I want to think about this separation of “negative” and “positive” emotions, because the more I think and feel about it, the less it makes sense). But for now, we can bring art into the dance and realize that the average school kid has felt this for years. Almost everyone I know who likes music seeks out all different kinds of melodies: hopeful, harrowing, haunting, hyper, hilarious, and maybe even some that don’t start with h. These kids know (or maybe feel) that feeling is healthy–that it deepens us, and opens the fullness of what we are.
Lately I’ve been feeling sad, and hurt. I don’t know if the purpose of emotions is to be used, but I do believe that every laugh, every year, and every fear can help. I haven’t just been feeling sad: I’ve been feeling hopeful, too, and kind. And in fact, the hurt I feel is a response to what I see, it’s a kind of ‘why do we do this to each other’ hurt, and it helps me to see where I can help. (More h’s). That doesn’t mean I’ll give up and sit here in the hurt. It does mean that the hurt has something to offer. It does mean, I think, that storms rolling in carry your power, lightning shines your light, rain has water for you to drink, and warm twilight’s share your peace. You are someone who can dance with all of that and more.