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.