Just read Lisa Feldman’s opinion piece “The Benefits of Despair” in the Gray Matter series in The New York Times. 

She describes the psychological term “emotional granularity” as something that people with finely tuned feelings have. Those who feel “creeping horror or fury, rather than just general awfulness.” She writes, “Emotional granularity isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary; it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely.”  She goes on to describe how this has numerous health benefits. Interesting stuff.

Love it. I continually find myself between emotions. I’m fascinated by mixed and nuanced feelings and trying to understand and name them. This is a very pronounced feeling working with high school kids because many of them are quite binary. They love it or hate it, it’s the best or it’s the worst. And most things are boring and stupid. This might be a larger cultural trend.

The other day a student handed me a notecard with ANECDOCHE written on it. She said I would appreciate the definition. I did. I do. Here’s the definition:

noun. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.  


The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a cool project. Check out their YOUTUBE channel. It illustrates, as far as I understand it, the idea of emotional granularity quite well. I recommend it. It’s in the spirit of foreign words like schadenfreude that don’t have direct English equivalents.

It might be emotional granularity that drives me to poetry, to writing, to reading. When two students bring you a gift (because they thought you would really appreciate it) that is two salamanders in a plastic container, and those two salamanders are on your desk and they start to mate and splash… I don’t how to feel about it. Yes, I appreciate the gesture. Yes, it is distracting. Yes, it is surprising that they started to mate right then. Yes and yes and then no and then I don’t know and then maybe and then thanks and then I’m not sure.

Days away from the end of the school year is a great time to experience mixed feelings and emotions, and emotions that are between emotions. Watching the seniors graduate is sweet and somewhat sad. Those seniors sending you text messages the next week of emojis blowing kisses is… not sure.

The last days of a school year are full of exhaustion and relief and annoyance and joy. It’s optimism and pessimism and realism and cynicism. It’s hope and fear. The air smells of self-preservation and “screw it.” It’s complex and nuanced and fascinating. It makes you want to quit forever and sign a ten year contract.

I like how Feldman ends her column. It gives me hope for teaching, for writing, for reading. And for advocating for all of those skills. She finishes her OP-ED this way:

The good news is that emotional granularity is a skill, and many people can increase theirs by learning new emotion concepts. I mean this literally: learning new words and their specific meanings. If you weren’t familiar with the term “pena ajena” that I mentioned earlier, for example, you’ve now increased your potential for granularity. Schoolchildren who learn more emotion concepts have improved social behavior and academic performance, as research by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence shows. If you incorporate such concepts into your daily life, your brain will learn to apply them automatically.

Emotion concepts are tools for living. The bigger your tool kit, the more flexibly your brain can anticipate and prescribe actions, and the better you can cope with life.

I think that’s good news. So, here’s a toast to emotional granularity. I raise my mug of lukewarm coffee, as I limp across the the finish line of another school year.

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