How Language Influences Emotion

Do you feel something less strongly if you don’t have a word for it?

Joel Ryan / AP

There’s plenty of disagreement over how to define emotions, but at least one thing is certain: They are intensely personal things. A flood of anger, a flash of annoyance—that feeling is yours, is a result of your own unique set of circumstances, is shaping the way you see the world at a given moment.

At the same time, though, our emotions are also shaped by the world around us, and different cultures collectively experience emotions in different ways. Korea, for example, has han, or the state of feeling sad and hopeful at the same time. Finland, Denmark, and Norway all have their own terms for the specific kind of coziness that comes from being warm on a cold day, surrounded by loved ones.

In the recently published The Book of Human Emotions, the cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith collected emotion words like these from around the world. I spoke to her about how vocabulary can affect the experience of feeling. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Gracie Lofthouse: In The Book of Human Emotions, you argue that the way we think about an emotion can actually change the way we feel it. What does this mean?

Tiffany Watt Smith: One of the emotions I became really interested in when researching the book was homesickness. In the mid to late 18th century, it was diagnosed as a fatal condition called nostalgia—from nostos, “homecoming,” and algia, “pain.” There was an outbreak of people who were experiencing a longing for home that was so intense it produced a melancholy and an exhaustion, but also sores, pustules, and fevers. People who suffered from it couldn’t eat. They’d end up fading away and dying.

Nowadays we think of homesickness as something kids have on sleepovers. It certainly hasn’t appeared on a death certificate for 100 years. The last person who was diagnosed with nostalgia as a cause of death died in 1918.

Lofthouse: How did it beome so much less serious, then? Why has the idea of homesickness changed so much?

Smith: With modernity came a different set of values. It’s not just that it got easier to travel and go back home and communicate through telephones and the Internet and so on. It’s about frontier spirit—in [the current] cultural atmosphere, longing for something that’s comforting and reassuring might seem unambitious. If I feel homesick today, I might think I should grow out of it and enjoy the adventure.

We used to have these words for the feeling of wanting to be home, the feeling of wanting to be in one place for a very long time, which have now disappeared. There’s a wonderful word: “homefulness,” which is the feeling you get when you turn the corner of your road or your airplane lands and you know you're near home. It’s a lovely combination of relief and belonging.

Lofthouse: Are there any emotions our culture takes more seriously than it used to?

Smith: We give happiness a lot of space in our discussions. But it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that happiness is something you’d want to aim for. If you look back to 16th-century Renaissance Europe, there's a fascination with sadness that’s almost the equivalent of today’s fascination with happiness. You start seeing a lot of authors writing about how to be sad better, and what the appropriate sort of sadness is. It’s seen as valuable because it brings you closer to God. It makes you more humble and more serious. In some cases, a more severe form of sadness, melancholia, was aligned with genius. I think the way we valorize happiness today is problematic. It creates pressure to feel upbeat and cheerful all the time.

Lofthouse: Are you saying we could be happier if we didn't obsess about happiness so much?

Smith: I definitely think so. I’ve read self-help books about happiness that make the case that if something’s important, you need to measure it and you need to figure out how to have more of it. I think that’s a mistake. There’s been some interesting research on the concept of emodiversity recently. The cause-and-effect relationship isn’t completely clear, but stronger physical and mental health is correlated with experiencing a range of emotions instead of just being happy or content all the time. It means allowing yourself to feel sad, angry, irritable, bored, and frustrated. All the things we’re told we ought not to feel.

Lofthouse: You talk about this sort of double life of emotions as an experience that’s both private and shared. Can you talk about that?

Smith: In the biological sense, our emotions are collective. They’re shared. Our bodily responses belong to people and animals who were having emotions millions and millions of years ago.

In the psychological sense, we’re used to thinking of our emotions as private things. But I'm really keen on emphasizing the ways in which it’s not possible to think about our emotions without thinking about our politics, gender, economics, changing values, changing practices of work, the changing sense of what’s going to be beneficial for the body and what’s healthy and what’s harmful.

Our current sense of the word “emotion” is deeply ingrained in an early 19th-century view of what it is to be human: that we’re a mechanistic body evolved from animals, and that our psychology is rooted in the world, as opposed to given by God. The key thing about this is that it imagines the body and the psychology working together as a secular event.

This gives rise to thinking about emotions as something to do with the individual as opposed to the group. When we think of an emotion, we think of it as something that happened to one person. But there’s this wonderful concept among the Baining people of Papua New Guinea. They talk about Awumbuk, which is what you feel when your visitors leave and you get this feeling of heaviness in the household. They leave a bowl of water out overnight, because they think the heaviness is caused by a mist their guests have left behind so they can travel lightly. They take the bowl of water out the next morning and throw it away, and everyone comes back to life again in the house. That’s an example where an emotion isn’t thought of as coming from within.

Lofthouse: Have you found yourself experiencing emotions differently since doing the research for your book?

Smith: Definitely. There’s some interesting research being done at the moment about the relationship between words and emotions. Learning new words for emotions means you might be able to identify those emotions as they come up in your own experience. And the more emotions you can identify and translate from vague, amorphous things into concrete terms, the easier time you have of it. I now enjoy feeling homefulness. I might have had glimmers of it before, but I don’t think I felt it in the same way.