When you heard about the shooting in Orlando, were you outraged, crushed, or sad? When you saw how Donald Trump made it all about him, were you miffed, appalled, or mad? These answers matter for your well-being, because, as an increasing body of research is finding, it’s better to be maudlin, morose, or melancholy rather than to just “feel bad.”
If you have “finely tuned feelings,” writes psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett in the New York Times, you’re exhibiting “emotional granularity,” defined in a review as the “adaptive value of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity.” In experiments, people high in granularity use a range of adjectives in reporting their experiments, while also describing the intensity of things like anger, embarrassment, guilt, and regret. People low in granularity will use angry, sad, or afraid to capture unpleasant things and excited, happy, or calm to describe pleasant things. The benefits of granularity go beyond being well-spoken, Barrett says: The greater your granularity, the “more precisely” you can experience your self and your world.
In her research, Barrett has discovered an unintuitive finding about the brain: She says that the emotional granularity isn’t just a result of people being able to identify their feelings. Rather, the brain, outside of your conscious awareness, “constructs” your emotional states, drawing, in a very real way, on your vocabulary of emotional concepts. (For more on emotions as conceptual acts, consider this deep dive.) “This is why emotional granularity can have such influence on your well-being and health,” she says. “It gives your brain more precise tools for handling the myriad challenges that life throws at you.”
She and other researchers have found a ton of strong associations that speak to the power of finely tuned feelings: The greater the emotional granularity experiment participants had, the less likely they were to freak out when angry, the less likely they were to drown their feelings in booze, and the more likely they were to be able to find positive takeaways from difficult emotional experiences. They’re also better with with emotion regulation, or the crucial life skill of being able to not always hit something when you’re angry, run when you’re afraid, or laugh when you think something is funny. High-granularity people also go to the doctor less and taken less medication, she notes, signaling not only psychological but physical health.
And the more precise your emotional granularity, the more action-oriented the emotions become. She gives the example of lead contamination in Flint, Michigan; if you “feel bad” when drawing contaminated water from a faucet, it’s easy to feel trapped by circumstance, but if you feel “righteous indignation” then you might write a letter to your congressperson or help organize in your community. Similarly, feeling “sad” after a breakup is like carrying a weight around your neck, while going full melancholy by listening to the Cure and writing bad poetry can at least make those uncomfortable feelings more meaningful.
Maybe the granularity is part of the reason that foreign words for feelings are so powerful. Knowing that hygge is Danish for candlelit deep-winter coziness seems to stave off seasonal affective disorder, and that shinrin yoku is Japanese for “wilderness bathing” makes it easier to get up early on a Saturday to go romp around the woods. It’s amazing what happens when you can put it into words.