MonthJuly 2015

How do I know what I’m feeling?

Picture a scenario.

Scenario 1: It’s your first day at work (or school).

Your mind is full of questions. What will other people be like? How long before you feel comfortable and fit in? Will you say something that will make them look at you weirdly?


Scenario 2: You were supposed to go to the mall with your friend.

But she went with someone else. You’re confused and don’t know why she did that.


Scenario 3: You’re back home after spending several years abroad.

You miss the foreign country and the friends you had there. You wonder if you made the right decision. People at home seem different from how you remember them.

We feel a flood of emotions in each of these scenarios. We process so many thoughts that it is hard to articulate anything specific. We feel the emotions intensely, yet there is a cloudiness, a diffuseness, to them. We cannot pinpoint a single overarching emotion. All of us have encountered such situations and the accompanying fuzziness in our thoughts.

Being able to work through and understand our emotions at times like these can be very important. By identifying our feelings we can understand how to cope. We can communicate with those close to us. We can address the source of our feelings. We can take time to heal or reach out for help.

But how to make sense of the jumble of feelings in our head?

I would suggest that the best approach is by writing down the answers to the question of “What am I feeling?”, against the four pairs of basic emotions possessed by all human beings:

  1. Am I feeling Happy or Sad?
  2. Am I feeling Fear or Anger?
  3. Am I feeling Trust or Disgust?
  4. Am I feeling Surprise or Anticipation?

As we quiz ourselves, the answers may show that only a few emotions are relevant. For example, I may be feeling Fear and Anticipation in the first scenario, Sad and Surprise in the second scenario, and Sad and Fear in the third scenario. Just knowing the mix of feelings may be enough to give us clarity and make us feel better.

An optional next step may be to see how these basic emotions create a blended emotion. Because the basic emotions combine to create a blended emotion, we are unable to pinpoint a single emotion, and feel confused and fuzzy.

  • Scenario 1: Fear + Anticipation = Anxiety
  • Scenario 2: Sad + Surprise = Disappointment
  • Scenario 3: Sad + Fear = Guilt

Through this exercise and with this knowledge we can not only understand ourselves better, but can also figure out what actions to take in order to feel differently.

Happiness and July 4th

Yesterday was July 4th, and I thought about the Founding Fathers of the USA as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

“…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Those words written 239 years ago, raised a question in my mind: How has the meaning of Happiness changed over the years? That is, what would have evoked happiness in 1776 and is it different in 2015?

It would seem the happiness from the milestones of a life well lived would be the unchanged by the passage of centuries, e.g., the birth of a child, a wedding, a successful recovery from illness, the graduation from a course of study or an apprenticeship. These life events are unchanged because they are tied to the human life cycle and because they share common characteristics. First, they point towards a change in societal status and role, with new responsibilities and rewards. For example, the birth of a child turns two individuals into parents, and leads to the responsibility of bringing up the child. There is the reward of seeing the world anew through the eyes of that child. Other milestones have similar changes in role and responsibilities. Second, these milestones are not easily achieved by everyone and often involve effort over periods of time. For example, graduating from high school or university represents the culmination of years of effort and perseverance and not everyone is successful. Similarly, the recovery from an illness, perhaps small pox in the 18th century, or cancer today, is an occasion for celebration and happiness.

Also unchanged is happiness due to stimulation of human senses. The feelings evoked by the feel of grass underneath bare feet, the light from the starry night sky, the smell of baked bread, the tart taste of an apple or the song of a nightingale, have not changed in the intervening centuries. Of course, feeling happy on receiving this sensory input depends on the individual’s state of mind. Nonetheless, we continue to rely on our senses to feel happy in the moment.

Finally, and also unchanged, is happiness due to liberty and the ability to make our own life choices. How we choose to spend our leisure and work time, whom we choose to see and meet, where we choose to live, what we choose to say, etc., all of these are still critical determinants of our happiness.

Thus while life is very different from 1776 to 2015, I would argue when it comes to happiness, the fundamental drivers are unchanging and still the same. Stay happy and hope you had a great time celebrating our National Holiday!

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