If you’re one of the 59.9 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s new Twitter bio, “President-elect of the United States,” is, to say the least, something of a shock. It’s hard to know what to do with the emotions stirred up by such a devastating loss. A good place to start: Scrutinize them, distinguishing your anger from your indignation and your sadness from your despair. Doing so is not just an exercise in introspection; it will help you begin to put those feelings to good use, argues Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of the forthcoming How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain and head of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern University.
It’s a concept called emotional granularity, defined as the “adaptive value of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity,” or considering the minutiae your emotions are made of. How you understand your own emotions can change the way you experience them, and, ultimately, what you do with them.
At the core of Barrett’s 20-some years of research into the mind is the insight that emotions aren’t something that just happen to you; rather, your brain constructs them. “Your brain makes emotion by applying what you know about emotions … to the physical sensations coming from your body,” she explained to Science of Us in an email. Essentially, your emotions are the products of how your brain interprets raw physiological data, and they manifest as a particular emotion depending on the range of emotional concepts you know — so being articulate isn’t just a matter of speaking well, but of feeling with greater discernment.
People who can precisely put their feelings into words, the research indicates, will use lots of different adjectives in talking about their experiences, and they’ll indicate how intense sensations of anger, guilt, regret, or embarrassment are for them. Describing unpleasant states as “sad,” “angry,”or “afraid” signals lower granularity, as does being “calm,” “happy,” or “excited” for nicer experiences.
The more precise the emotional reaction, the better-informed your action can be. “Emotional granularity helps your brain figure out when to act … and what to do,” she says. “Your brain does this very automatically, so you don’t have to put a lot of effort into it. Your actions are better tailored to the situation you find yourself in. Sometimes what you do, how you act, even changes the situation you are in.” Like she noted in a column for the New York Times earlier this year, feeling righteous indignation about an outrage — like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan — will push you to educating your kids, organizing in the community, or other civic-minded actions more than will feeling sad or bad. In this way, knowing how you feel helps shift your perspective from victim to actor.
Greater granularity is like having more ingredients available in your kitchen, Barrett says; you can make a wider range of dishes, suited to a wider degree of situations. “You are better able to communicate to others how you feel and better able to understand how others feel (making it easier to get and give social support),” she says. “You are better able to figure out what to do next. And your brain is better able to regulate your body.” To that end, studies indicate that the more effectively articulate among us take fewer meds and go to the doctor less often. It’s also linked with being less likely to drown your feelings in alcohol and more likely to derive meaningful takeaways from difficult experiences — like, say, an election result that looks catastrophic.