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50 Shades of Crappy: The Power of “Emotional Granularity”

Shannon Harvey

At the risk of sounding like I’m whining about my #firstworld problems; this morning was nothing short of crappy.

With thanks to two small children who had broken my sleep throughout the night, I woke up feeling crappy. With thanks to a freezing house not suited to Sydney’s mid-winter weather, I got out of bed feeling crappy. With thanks to my late start to the morning, I wrestled my monumentally resistant children out the door, feeling crappy.

As my morning continued, so did the crappiness. The crappiness of an overflowing Inbox. The crappiness of another film-grant rejection. The crappiness of a particularly difficult blog that needed writing….

Fortunately it was the subject matter of the difficult blog that finally snapped me out of my fog-of-crappiness and helped me to re-calibrate.

This week I’ve been deep-diving into something I suspect is going to become a buzz word on the covers of airport bookstore best-sellers. It’s a concept called emotional granularity –  the ability to describe how we’re feeling in granular detail. If the latest research findings are anything to go on, emotional granularity may soon be considered an essential item in our evidence-based toolkit for building mental and physical wellbeing.

I first came across the concept while I was reading How Emotions Are Made by Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, Lisa Feldman-Barrett, in which she described a phenomenon she observed early in her career after studying 700 people’s emotional experiences as they went about their lives. She found that when people used various emotion words such as ‘sad’ or ‘afraid’ to communicate their feelings, they weren’t necessarily talking about the same thing.

Feldman-Barrett had discovered emotional granularity and explains that in a similar way that a skilled interior designer might describe five shades of blue as ‘cobalt,’ ‘royal,’ ‘cyan,’ ‘sky,’ or ‘aqua,’ there are also spectrums of words people can use to describe their emotional experiences. While some people use fine-grained distinctions, such as ‘sadness’ as distinct from ‘fear,’ others lump words together to just ‘unpleasant.’ (Or, in my case just ‘crappy.’)

As a journalist interested in the evidence demonstrating the link between our mind, body and health, I was fascinated when Feldman-Barrett went on to highlight that having vague emotional awareness is linked to poor mental and physical health.

I’ve since learned that other researchers are investigating along similar lines. Professor Todd Kashdan at George Mason University in the U.S for example, researches emotion diversification, and Associate Professor Jordie Quiodbach at ESADE Business School in Barcelona investigates emodiversity. Regardless of the label, they’re all getting at the same thing, and the mounting evidence suggests that an ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of complexity is an independent predictor of mental and physical health, over and above average levels of positive and negative emotions.

It turns out that people who experience their emotions as discrete and specific have been found to possess greater emotion regulation skills and greater resilience in the face of stress. They’re also less aggressive in anger-inducing situations and can prevent emotions from biasing their moral judgments. Greater granularity is also implicated in better health with fewer doctor’s visits, less medication, less alcohol abuse, and even less inflammation. On the flip side, people who experience their emotions as more diffuse and general, are more likely to have mental illnesses ranging from borderline personality disorder to anorexia nervosa and major depression.

Although we don’t yet know exactly why, in what context, for whom, and how recognising distinct emotional phenomena might be beneficial, the emerging theories are fascinating. One idea is that granularity allows us to label our emotions more accurately, and subsequently deal with them better. Another theory likens emodiveresity to nature’s biodiversity. In the same way that a single predator cannot easily wipe out an entire thriving ecosystem, emodiversity may prevent specific emotions – in particular detrimental ones such as acute stress, anger or sadness – from dominating our emotional ecosystem.

The emodiversity theory resonated with me in particular this morning as I contemplated my crappy morning. With all this in mind, I began paying fine-grained attention to my emotional experience – my 50 shades of crappy. There was the grey fog of tiredness, the steely tension of wintery-cold muscles, and the ashen disappointment of another rejected film grant application.

But pretty soon, the grey mists of crappiness made way for bursts of colour – of motherly-love for the kids who’d kept me awake, of gratitude towards those who’d supported my new film so far, and fiery motivation to get back to work and keep trying. By paying fine-grained attention and clearing the mists of crappiness, what followed for the rest of the day was more like a clear-sighted complete spectrum of emotional experience – black to white and everything in between.

 

Photo by Matt Nelson on Unsplash

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