Wednesday, January 30, 2019
I believe in the power of words. As the journalist and economist Henry Hazlitt wrote, "The richer and more copious one's vocabulary and the greater one's awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one's thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grow together." If we didn't already recognize this truth before law school, certainly our legal education inculcated this understanding of the immense power of language.
The power of naming applies not only to factual and intellectual concepts but also to management of our emotions. "[T]he greater one's awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning" of our emotions, the more capable we are of coping with the slings and arrows of our emotional lives. This is the concept behind the term "emotional granularity," as recently featured in a public radio story about controlling anger.
Emotional granularity boils down to naming emotions (whether positive or negative) with specificity. The more precise the language we use to describe our emotional states, the more likely we are to understand that emotion, and the greater our success in controlling it. Based on research begun in the 1990s and continuing into the present, Northeastern University psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues have found that persons who use more specific terms to describe their emotional experiences actually experience those emotions more precisely. Instead of being "stressed" by a low grade or negative evaluation, for example, they may be furious, or indignant, or wearied, or despondent, or crestfallen, or disconsolate.
Those who can more precisely identify what they are feeling are better at regulating and coping with their emotions. In contrast, people who have trouble distinguishing whether they are "angry" or "anxious" or "depressed" or "afraid" have trouble finding the tools to deal with their experience, just like wailing toddlers may not be able to identify whether their distress comes from hunger, overstimulation, sleeplessness, loneliness, or fear.
Emotional granularity is, fortunately, a skill that can be learned, not just an attribute of persons blessed with sensitivity. Sometimes we think that the analytical skills we develop as lawyers have negative emotional effects, but here is an instance where the ability to consciously step back and analyze our emotions can have positive effects. (Indeed, research indicates that persons with high emotional granularity are not only happier but also healthier than the general population.) Moreover, building our emotional vocabulary can assist in and of itself. The more emotional concepts we learn (whether from perusing a trusty American/English dictionary or from exposing ourselves to concepts originating in other languages and cultures), the more our brains are primed to apply the concepts we know. And as Dr. Barrett notes, "The bigger your tool kit, the more flexibly your brain can anticipate and prescribe actions, and the better you can cope with life."