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Measuring Emotions


The classic way to think about emotions is to ask things like whether you feel happy or sad, whether you’re anxious or excited, in awe or disappointed. But these reduce the complexity of how we experience emotion.

“Opposite” emotions are not a single, linear scale. You can feel both happy and sad–this is what we call bittersweet. People then say, well, what you REALLY feel is the one that overpowers the other, the one that you feel more of–that’s what your true emotion is. But that’s inadequate too–and still thinks of emotions as linear scales, as unable to exist when another also does, as if they can cancel each other out. You may feel devastated that a friend is moving away to a new job, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also be happy that she got the job she wanted. Just because you’re mostly sad, that doesn’t mean the happy part doesn’t exist; it doesn’t mean you’re a terrible friend and “truly” don’t want her to leave, simply because you’re mostly sad.

Science likes to use this “cancelling” type of thinking because it’s much easier to use the “most powerful” emotion than it is to ask about all the emotions a person is feeling. After all, it’s confusing on a survey to have a person answer that they’re content with their life but also seeking to improve it. But that’s something that actually happens. Take reading, for instance. People don’t read solely because they think they’re woefully ignorant; they read because they value knowing more, for pleasure, for interest, many other reasons. The same can happen with wanting to improve your life: you don’t have to dislike the way things are in order to seek new things, different things, to improve things. You merely have to realize that things could be better–which doesn’t require feeling that your current situation is horrible, which would be necessary to be discontent. Discontent means that you think the current situation isn’t good enough; but lots of people who say they want to improve their lives are not discontent, they simply know that there’s more out there, which is all that you need to want improvement. Same way it works with reading: you don’t have to think you need to read because you’re worse than other people, you can do it simply because you know there’s more good things out there.

But I think science tends to say that the way they collect data *is* the way that people experience emotion, ie that only the most power counts, that all emotions have opposites that cancel each other out. Except that in our daily lives, we ask “how do you feel”, and expect not a litany of everything, but a single answer–the single most powerful emotion, the one that overrides everything else, the one that doesn’t get cancelled out. That’s how English tends to work. Most emotion words are just single words. There’s very few “combo” words like bittersweet to express more complex emotions, feeling more than one at a time, not like in German where things can be stacked on top of each other. English, and society, thinks that there’s just a few basic emotions, and that the “positive” ones cancel the “negatives”–you can’t be both happy and disgusted, for instance. You could be sad and afraid, maybe sad and angry, but not disgusted and happy, not surprised and sad.


But all those things happen. They happen a lot. Say you’re the person who’s gotten a new job and are now moving across the country. You’re happy to have the job, but you’re anxious about how the move will go, about how well your new coworkers will accept you. That’s happy and anxious–a part of fear. They don’t cancel each other out. You aren’t “truly” one or the other. Maybe mostly one, but that doesn’t cause the other emotion to stop existing or be irrelevant. It’s still just as important. All the things you feel matter, they’re all a part of who you are; you don’t have to always pick just one, or always pick just the strongest. To say otherwise is like saying the only thing that matters about you is your job, or your single favorite food, or the one thing you spend the most time doing. Everything else matters too.

Similarly, you can feel hate and love at the same time. You can feel hate and righteousness at the same time. “Bad” emotions don’t wholly contaminate the good ones or what you’re doing. Your revulsion for the person who committed a crime against you doesn’t mean putting him in jail is a hateful act. And “good” emotions don’t mean that they overpower and “purify” everything else and you actions. You can feel righteousness purely because you’re punishing someone you hate–that’s where a lot of stuff like genocides comes from, because that’s how you justify it. It feels good, so it must be good–but that’s a different topic. Training, learning from and listening to your emotions is just as hard work and just as rewarding as training yourself in logic and reasoning. That’s another reason it’s important to pay attention to everything you’re feeling, not just “the most intense” ones.

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