About 20 years ago, I think, I started experiencing obscure emotions. Sometime around the winter of 2001, I started feeling gezelligheid, the cozy sense of being at home with friends while it’s storming outside. The following spring, I endured bouts of what the French call ilinx, the sudden urge to perform minor and unnecessary destructive acts— smashing plates or knocking over trash bins.
By the 2010s I was having spells of ambiguphobia, a fear of leaving things open to interpretation, and also moments of what the Inuit call iktsuarpok, the fidgeting desire to look out the window even when you’re in the middle of a perfectly engrossing conversation. As I age, I’m also definitely experiencing more cyberchondria, the anxiety you feel about imagined health issues after checking WebMD.
I started out as an infant with the basic human suite of emotions: enjoyment, sadness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, and so on. And I like to think my youthful character was marked by what I would call manly stoicism—though my friends would call it a pathetic fear of my own feelings. But eventually, my emotionless exoskeleton began to crack, and I began to experience not just the basic primary-color emotions that children feel, but a whole range of subtle adult emotions.
I didn’t really understand any of this until recently, when I learned about the invention of smiling. According to the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, smiling as we understand it didn’t exist in classical times, but was invented by Europeans in the Middle Ages. Barrett’s larger point, which she advances in her book How Emotions Are Made, is that emotions are constructed—they are the names different cultures use to conceptualize different body states. (Because I went to the University of Chicago, I have always read about things I don’t experience personally.) Emotional categories constitute and organize our physical responses to the world around us—and the possibilities are almost infinite.
Barrett champions what she calls emotional granularity. The more finely you can identify different body states—distinguishing, say, among aggravation, irritation, frustration, hostility, anxiety, and disgruntlement—the more you will understand yourself, and the more effectively you will move in the world. Marc Brackett, an emotion scholar at Yale, argues that when you can precisely label your emotions, you’ll be able to more accurately communicate your needs to others, and you’ll be able to more precisely understand their needs.
Though I was aware of a creeping sensation of brabant (knowing you’re going to try something that is probably not a good idea and will likely backfire), I thought I’d work on my emotional-granularity skills. I started reading the work of other emotion scholars, such as Antonio Damasio (who wrote The Feeling of What Happens, among other books) and Tiffany Watt Smith (The Book of Human Emotions) and, most recently, an unusual genius named John Koenig, who is the author of the website and forthcoming book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which invents some of the previously unlabeled emotional categories I’ve included here.
Once I’d heard the names for certain emotions, I realized I’d been experiencing them all along. The French have l’appel du vide, which is what happens when you’re walking by a high cliff and you don’t quite trust yourself not to throw yourself off. Then there is Rückkehrunruhe, which is the feeling you get after you’ve returned from a great vacation and sadly realize that your memories of the experience are growing less vivid every day.
As I got deeper into the emotions of different cultures around the globe, I was kind of relieved to be a happy and shallow American. We don’t have words for some of the dark varieties of despair that seem more prevalent in other places. The Greeks have stenahoria to describe a feeling of hopelessness, constriction, suffocation, and doom. The Russians have tocka, which is a kind of spiritual anguish. The Pintupi people in Western Australia have ngulu, the dread you feel when you suspect that someone is seeking revenge against you. The Japanese have age-otori, the feeling of looking worse after a haircut.
I’m trying to gravitate toward more positive emotions. Because my grandparents spoke Yiddish, I have a tendency to kvell every time I experience nackhes (delight in a young relative’s accomplishment). It would be nice to feel amae, the Japanese term for a state that comprises, all at once, an intimate emotional synchronicity with another person, an act of surrender to them, and the assurance that you can take their love for granted. I’ve been getting strange pleasure in the feeling of sonder, another of Koenig’s formulations—the realization that each passerby has an inner life as vivid and complex as your own.
The most grown-up emotions are happy and sad at the same time; they come tinted with both appreciation and sorrow. Consider han, from Korea, a collective acceptance of suffering combined with a quiet hope that things will get better, rooted in Korea’s long history of colonializations. Or liget, from the Ilongot tribe in the Philippines, which describes the angry energy that tends to lead to fights but also motivates us to do our best work.
The Baining people in Papua New Guinea experience awumbuk, the feeling that follows the departure of beloved visitors from your house. (The idea is that when leaving your house, the visitors shed a heaviness to lighten their travels, which stays in your home for a few days afterward, leaving a feeling of oppression.) The Ifaluk people in the South Pacific experience fago; this is “the pity felt for someone in need, which compels us to care for them,” according to Smith, “but it is also haunted by a strong sense that one day we will lose them.” I’m especially transfixed by the Spanish duende—the chilling and thrilling feeling of sorrow and joy that flows out of hardship and is expressed as a heightened awareness of death while dancing the flamenco.
Psychologists say that people who exhibit emodiversity—the capacity to experience a lot of emotions—are better able to regulate themselves, drink less when stressed, suffer less from exhaustion, and visit doctors less often than those who don’t. Someone once told me about a Danish word, for the emotion that can be described as “I feel bad for you because you’ve just expressed too much emotion in public.” It turns out that this word might be apocryphal—but it shouldn’t be, because I’m pretty sure I generate the feeling in others. And there is a term, lexithymia, for the condition of thinking too much about your emotional state and tediously describing it to others.
At best, I’m about a paragraph away from being guilty of that one here.