The psychological term we use for this ability to pinpoint your exact emotion is “emotional granularity.” It means you experience the world and yourself more precisely. And there are a lot of benefits to increasing this skill.
People who have emotional granularity are less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior. They have better relationships, make better decisions, live longer and are healthier.
The New York Times recently reported on a study conducted by Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. They asked hundreds of volunteers to track their emotional experiences for weeks or months. They discovered something very interesting.
They assumed that people with higher emotional granularity were just better at recognizing their emotional states. Instead they learned that the brain proactively constructs your emotional states before you’re aware of it. The brain doesn’t respond to the world in some predetermined way. It anticipates what might come next, based on a past experience. This means you get to program your emotional responses as you choose.
If you can translate your feelings into a specific emotional term that you can act on, then you don’t deplete your store of energy needlessly. Dr. Feldman Barrett likened our energy supply to a bank account. When there’s a real threat, then the withdrawal of energy translates into a meaningful action. Afterward, you can resupply your energy reserves through rest and nutrition.
On the other hand, when there’s a constant feeling of badness, it drains your account. There are no reserves of energy left for when it’s needed. You’re overdrawn. This leads to feeling trapped and overwhelmed, increasing the likelihood of mental and physical illness.
You can increase your emotional granularity by becoming more skilled in identifying the nuances of your emotions. How many emotional concepts do you have in your vocabulary? I encourage you to write down a list of new words to describe the emotional states you experience. You’ll give your brain a larger toolkit to work from, which will give you more emotional flexibility in coping with what life throws at you.