How Are You Feeling? part 1

You’ve probably had this feeling, though you may not have had a name for it. Lisa Feldman Barret describes it:
“Imagine the feeling of reaching into a bag of potato chips and discovering that the previous chip you ate was the last one. You feel disappointed that the bag is empty, relieved that you won’t be ingesting any more calories, slightly guilty that you ate the entire bag, and yet hungry for another chip.”
So: disappointment mixed with relief, a hint of guilt, and hunger for more. Dr. Barrett gives this made-up emotion a name. She calls it chiplessness.

What makes an emotion is that we learn to interpret feelings with the category. We use it to interpret other people’s feelings as well as our own – they are a social reality. You wouldn’t know that feeling you have was love if you didn’t have lots of examples from other people. So, for chiplessness to become a real emotion, we have to make it a social reality – a word that we can use for describing ourselves and each other in various situations.

Any time you’re enjoying something that comes to end and you’re disappointed and relieved and a little guilty because you think maybe you’ve been enjoying it more than you should – yet you’re desirous of more, that’s chiplessness. If you’ve ridden the roller coast at a given amusement park hundreds of times, and you get there one day and the ride is out of order -- "closed for repairs" -- you’re disappointed, yet a bit relieved because you’re a little guilty about the way you’ve been a touch over-enthusiastic about this ride – yet there’s still a part of you that did want to ride it. So you’re feeling chipless.

Or, you come to the end of the last episode of a series you’ve been binge watching. You’re relieved that you got all the way through it, yet at the same time sorry that it’s over. You suspect maybe spending all that time on this show may not have been the best use of your time, yet you hope there’s going to be another season. You’ve got that chipless feeling.

If you interpret your experience with this category a few times, it won’t be long before you’re adept at it. And now it’s a real emotion – as real as happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. That’s the part you may, quite reasonably, have doubts about. Up until about a month ago, before I started exploring the case that L. F. Barrett makes, if the concept of chiplessness had been introduced to me the way I just introduced it to you, I would have thought, “Well, that’s fun. But this new concoction is surely a mix of more elemental emotions.

There are a number of emotions that we recognize as mixtures of more elemental emotions.
  • The feeling that something is bittersweet is quite explicitly a combining of bitterness and sweetness.
  • In the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias,” Dolly Parton’s character says, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
  • The Oxford Dictionary defines “awe” as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”
So we’re familiar with emotions that are mixtures of other emotions. They can even be mixtures of supposed opposite feelings. When we say we have mixed feelings about something we might be indicating that we have a mixed judgment of it – we see that it’s both good and bad, in different ways.

We also often actually have opposite emotions of both happiness and sadness at the same time. If you saw the 1997 Roberto Benigni film, “Life is Beautiful,” in which a father tries to keep his child’s spirits up while they are in a concentration camp, then you probably got a strong dose of happiness and sadness at the same time. The masters of literature evoke the various mixing of emotions as their stock in trade, as in a 1960 New Yorker column by John Updike about witnessing the baseball great Ted Williams’ last at-bat. Updike wrote,
“No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.”
All these forms of mixed emotion, whether the familiar poignance or the novel chiplessness, are mixtures of elemental or primary emotions, right?

A recent Psychology Today column declares:
“There are at least eight primary or basic emotions – interest, joy, distress, anger, fear, anxiety, surprise, and disgust – associated with a single facial expression. Primary emotions are universal and innate.”
And that’s pretty much what I would have said a month ago. I wouldn’t have listed "interest" as an emotion, though I can see the sense in that. And "sadness" isn’t on this list, though "distress" and "anxiety" are. It might have occurred to me to ponder whether "anxiety" is primary, or is it a mixture of "sadness" and "fear"? In encouraging people to identify their emotions if they were having trouble saying how they felt – or difficulty separating the emotion itself from judgment and evaluation – I learned in my training for ministry to start with the basics: mad, sad, glad, and scared.

How are you feeling? I might ask. And I might hear, I feel wronged, or neglected, or cheated, or abandoned, or betrayed, or let down. Those are judgments. "Disappointed." That’s getting closer, but in a given context it’s likely to be tinged with judgment about another person’s conduct rather than your own emotion. So to be helpful in identifying the emotion I might ask, are you mad, sad, glad, or scared? From there, we can begin learning how to fine tune our identification of emotions.

Under the general rubric of sadness, one might discern discouragement, distraughtness, resignation, helplessness, hopelessness, misery, despair, grief, sorrow, or anguish – each of which is distinct. Anger might be fine-tuned as annoyance, frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, or fury. Gladness might be fine tuned as sensory pleasure, rejoicing, compassionate joy, amusement, relief, pride, wonder, excitement, or ecstasy. And so on.

Psychologist Paul Ekman did a number of cross-cultural studies in which he showed people faces like these:
Ekman’s work led him to the conclusion that there were these six emotions that were innate and universally recognized in all cultures. In addition to anger, sadness, gladness, and fear, he’s got surprise and disgust. When Pixar made the delightful 2015 film, “Inside Out,” depicting the emotions of an 11-year-old girl, they drew on Ekman’s work. They decided to leave out surprise, and went with anger, sadness, joy, fear, and disgust as the five basic feelings playing out inside Riley as she navigates her world. The Psychology Today column has eight – adding interest and replacing sadness with distress and anxiety. And there might be more – the column says there are “at least” eight primary emotions.

Despite ongoing ambiguity about the precise list of what the primary emotions are, the column confidently declares that “primary emotions are universal and innate.” Turns out – according to L.F. Barrett and a growing number of researchers whose evidence I find pretty persuasive – that none of these are universal or innate. None.

What is universal and innate -- in the area of feelings -- are two scales. There’s a scale of low arousal to high arousal, and there’s a scale of pleasant to unpleasant. The middle area of each scale is neutral – neither elevated nor low arousal, neither particularly pleasant or unpleasant. So:
  • if arousal is low, and it’s pleasant, you are calm and serene;
  • if arousal is low and it’s unpleasant, you are lethargic or depressed;
  • if arousal is high and it’s pleasant, you’re excited and thrilled or elated;
  • if arousal is high and it’s unpleasant, you are upset, distressed.
That’s the biology that is indeed basic. It’s basic to all vertebrates and possibly to many invertebrates. Everything else, it turns out, is cultural and learned.

We had to learn how to interpret ourselves and each other as angry or scared – and we learned it basically the way we learned a few minutes ago to interpret ourselves sometimes as chipless.

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