Try these two smart techniques to help you master your emotions

By Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD

By more clearly identifying our feelings or by recategorizing them, we can reduce suffering (yes!) and increase well-being, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett.

“He’s an angry person”; “I’m a very anxious person.” We’ve all made statements like these. They point towards the belief that emotions are hardwired in our brains or automatically triggered by events. But after decades of research at Northeastern University, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has come to a different conclusion: “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.” (For an overview of her theory, watch her TED Talk.) And that’s good news: Since our brain essentially constructs our emotions, we can teach it to label them more precisely and then use this detailed information to help us take the most appropriate actions — or none at all. Here, she explains how to do this. 

One of the best things you can do for your emotional health is to beef up your concepts of emotions. Suppose you knew only two emotion concepts: “Feeling Awesome” and “Feeling Crappy.” Whenever you experienced an emotion or perceived someone else as emotional, you’d categorize only with this broad brush, which isn’t very emotionally intelligent. But if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful . . .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy . . .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing and perceiving emotions, providing you with the tools for more flexible and useful responses. You could predict and categorize your sensations more efficiently and better suit your actions to your environment.

People who can construct finely-grained emotional experiences go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness.

What I’m describing is emotional granularity, the phenomenon that some people construct finer-grained emotional experiences than others do. People who make highly granular experiences are emotion experts: they issue predictions and construct instances of emotion that are finely tailored to fit each specific situation. At the other end of the spectrum are young children who haven’t yet developed adult-like emotion concepts and who use “sad” and “mad” interchangeably. My lab has shown that adults run the whole range from low to high emotional granularity. So, a key to real emotional intelligence is to gain new emotion concepts and hone your existing ones.

Perhaps the easiest way to gain concepts is to learn new words. 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 (which is how your brain anticipates and fulfills your body’s energy needs), and your body budget determines how you feel. People who exhibit higher emotional granularity go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. This is not magic; it’s what happens when you leverage the porous boundary between the social and the physical.

Higher emotional granularity has many other benefits for a satisfying life. In a collection of scientific studies, people who could distinguish finely among their unpleasant feelings ​— ​those “50 shades of feeling crappy” ​— ​were 30 percent more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them. For people who suffer from schizophrenia, those who exhibit higher emotional granularity report better relationships with family and friends, compared to those who exhibit lower granularity, and are better able to choose the correct action in social situations.

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