How can you define an emotion?

There is a fundamental problem that arises when language is used to define an emotion such as, for example, what you call “sadness”. In fact, using language to describe all different kind of emotions will inevitably lead to misunderstanding. This is because the language of emotions is different from the language that we use to describe objects, or actions, or specific concepts. Also, the language that we know and that most people use (thus excluding the language used by poets and artists), did not evolve to describe the inner, emotional world, but to fulfill a very functional and fundamental purpose: to facilitate communication.

To understand this important point, let’s just look at the problem arising when someone tries to define “sadness”. Let’s assume that, in a given moment, you feel in a certain way, which you think can be described as “sadness”. You will try to find a reason for your sadness: “I feel sad because my grandmother passed away”; or “I feel sad because people do not like me”. However, if you and me were in the same room and you were explaining your sensations to me in these terms, I would tell you that these kind of feelings cannot be defined as sadness; to me, what you are feeling when you lose someone you love is just saudade (a Portuguese word, untranslatable in English, used to indicate an emotional state of deep nostalgia and melancholy, often associated with the absence of loved ones.), an emotive consequence of your bereavement, a sensation that is a result of missing someone close to you that has died.

If you feel down because people do not like you, my interpretation would be that your ego is playing tricks upon you, and that you may be feeling inadequate, unaccepted or demeaned because of this. You are not really sad; you are just frustrated because it was so important to you that people liked you, and things did not go the way you wanted. Another time, you would think that you feel sad because you have lost your job, or because your significant other left you for someone else. But, once again, I would tell you that you are victim of a misunderstanding: you are in pain because of frustration, jealousy, or abandonment and you do not feel sad at all. Once again you are just frustrated, because something did not meet your expectations. You feel somewhat betrayed by this world that, at least in your head, promised you a reward, and then did not fulfill this promise.

And as far as I am concerned, you are only feeling “sad” because things did not go the way you wanted. Really, it does not matter whether your grandma passed away, or you are being disliked by people, or you have lost your job, or you got cheated on. In all cases, you think that you feel sad, but to me this is just a feeling of frustration because things did not go the way you wished they would. One of the negative emotions that is most mistaken for sadness is frustration. And with this I am only giving you my point of view, offering you another perspective, another definition for your feelings. However, I am not saying that I am correct and you are not, I’m only saying that semantic is tricky. That things can be see from so many different angles, and that language can be used in so many different ways to describe emotions, that it would be difficult to define sadness unequivocally.

Why ordinary language cannot be used to express feelings

There is an infinite spectrum of different ways to view what you call “sadness”, and therefore there may very well be an emotional vocabulary which may differ between each person. You call it sadness and I call it frustration. “Sadness” is just a word. And it is perfectly fine for you to define whatever sensation with whatever word you want. It is your life, and you should never let anyone define your emotional sphere. However, you can now see how identifying an emotion is largely a matter of different points of views, and of different interpretations of a certain word. You can also appreciate how discussing the definition of words that are used to express emotions is futile. It is a charade that can go on and on, forever, without resolution. Let me repeat it, once again: it is useless to discuss the meaning of words that are used to express feelings. You may discuss the meaning of a word that defines a material object, or a certain specific concept. In that case, a definition is useful, and language allows us to communicate easily when discussing those material and worldly aspects.

But when it comes to feelings, how can you define something as complex and thought-less as sadness? Or happiness? Or love, for that matter? Depending on the individual’s culture, background, and perception of these feelings, “sadness” can mean a range of different things, and can associate with different states of mind, or generate a different range of sub-emotions. Different cultures around the world have different views on life, and that can influence deeply the emotional response to certain important events such as death. For example, the Rajasthan’s gipsy tribe in India is famous for celebrating death as a happy event while mourning over birth, because they consider life itself to be a curse from God. Imagine for a moment: what would the members of the Rajasthan tribe say if you told them that you are sad because someone close to you passed away? They would think that you are crazy, and that they’ve never heard of someone being sad for such a thing. It’s all about interpretation, it’s all about your culture and background. This has really nothing to do with real sadness.

The language of emotion

But if language is not accurate or useful when discussing emotions, how can we communicate the way we feel to others? You cannot use words to communicate emotions, but you can certainly use other means. You can smile, laugh, cry, hug, caress, kiss, hold hands, bat your eyes… Try this: hug someone next time you want to tell them how much you love them, instead of telling them that you love them. If you just say ” I love you”, what does it even mean? In certain languages such as Hindi there are even multiple different words to describe different nuances and layers of emotions like love. In Italian, you have mainly two types of expressions, one that you use to express a passionate kind of love, and another that  you use to express love for your family and friends. In English however, you can only use the word “love”. Isn’t it a little limiting for something so big and varied such as love? But then again, this is why I’m telling you to drop this attachment to emotional semantic altogether. In fact, even in other languages, there will never be enough words or expressions to describe any emotion fully. Even in Hindi, where more than 20 different words exist that describe love, you’ll still find confusion. Even if there were hundreds, or thousands of different words, it will not suffice.

Now that we have clarified this important point, we can also talk about emotions such as sadness more freely. I have told you that your definition and interpretation of sadness, or any emotion for that matter, can be very different from mine. This is because we are all very different from each other, we have been brought up differently, and we have lived our lives in a different way. So, it is unavoidable that we will interpret emotions in a different way, even to the extreme that what makes me feel sad might make you laugh, and vice versa. This is not an issue, as the identity or the source of emotions do not matter that much. What really matters is that your emotions are pure and free from any artifacts created by the ego. You need to be able to distinguish a pure emotion such as pure sadness from a by-product of the ego such as frustration. Most people are really not able to make a difference, and this is what keeps them from getting rid of negative emotions. I just want you to understand what pure sadness is, and why it is so different from negative emotions such as frustration. In fact, sadness, when pure, it is not a negative emotion at all. It’s not even the opposite of happiness… It’s just something that you can only really experience when you’ve let go of any thought or preconception you might have of it. Language is just the product of thinking, and emotions are simply felt, not thought.

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