From Descartes, to Darwin, to Pixar’s Inside Out (2015), the idea that we have ‘basic’ emotions continues to offer a satisfyingly neat account of a mystifying subject. Usually we are given around six to play with: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. These emotions, we are told, have been felt in the same way by all people throughout time, because they are biological responses to age-old human problems. But what if it’s not that simple?
What if the way we experience emotion is constantly changing, infinitely vulnerable to the shifting preoccupations and values of our cultures? To explore this idea, Ladybeard spoke to Dr. Elsa Richardson, from The Queen Mary Centre for The History of Emotions, about the ways in which our most private emotional experiences are socially constructed, and how everything from government policy, to gender roles, to the economy, is shaping the way we feel.
You work with the first UK research centre dedicated to the history of emotions. How can ‘emotions’ have histories?
The word ‘emotion’ itself didn’t come into common usage until the 1830s. Before that, people described their ‘passions’, ‘affectations’, ‘appetites’, ‘sentiments’, or ‘humours’. It is possible to argue that human feelings have remained the same through time and only our means of expressing them has changed, but I would argue that the tools we have to describe our feelings – the theoretical categories, imaginative descriptions, and cultural images that are made available to us – effectively shape the way we experience the feelings themselves. If you believe, like the Greeks and Romans did, that the black bile of the liver is the cause of sadness – that changes the way you feel that sadness. The meaning that individuals ascribe to their own emotional experience helps to create that experience.
Happiness has always been considered a fleeting emotion, but the idea that we can actually engineer it is new.
Happiness has changed in interesting ways. As my colleague Tiffany Watt Smith writes in The Book of Human Emotions (2015), in the 16th century, authors of self-help books were encouraging people to be sad. Today, happiness is seen as the most important life goal. Governments and psychologists have developed ways to measure and quantify happiness in the population, and there’s a whole industry built around creating it. Happiness has always been considered a fleeting emotion, but the idea that we can actually engineer it is new. What’s particularly significant is the way that happiness has become bound up with the drive for success. So that one cannot simply be happy, one must put that happiness to work to achieve goals and thus become even happier. We have really limited the scope of what happiness might be, by binding it so closely to the idea of success and material gain. By entangling the idea of happiness with measures of health and achievement, I fear that we have transformed the feeling into another kind of work.
If culture determines what and how an individual feels, do our emotional repertoires differ across continents? What emotions are we ‘missing’ because they are not valued by British society?
Different languages contain different emotional vocabularies. In Japan there is a word, amae, which means the feeling of dependence on another person – a family member, a lover, a friend – and the knowledge that your needs will be met unconditionally by that person. Anthropologists have argued that amae is a key example of the way that our emotions are socially constructed: in Japan’s more collectivist culture, absolute trust in other members of the group is necessary in a way that it is not in more individualistic environments. That we don’t have a word for amae in the English language might give us insight into what emotions are made possible within a given society. Does the fact that we have no equivalent reveal something about our attitude to gratitude or our privileging of self-sufficiency?
Are there any striking examples of governments attempting to shape or control peoples’ emotions?
My feeling is that we should be very wary of the ways that powerful institutions and governmental bodies can place particular emotions in the service of dominant ideology. Envy is an interesting example. Where jealousy is usually defined in terms of interpersonal relationships, envy is associated with the desire for someone else’s material possessions. What is interesting is the way that envy has also served a political purpose: by dismissing complaints regarding wealth disparity as simply manifestations of a negative emotion, it is possible to discredit the quite legitimate grievances of the marginalised. When someone from a low-income background expresses anger at the ostentatious wealth of a city banker, say, it is easy to diffuse the political power of that righteous anger by reclassifying it as, simply, envy.
Aligning women with the realm of the emotions has served as a highly effective way of excluding them from public discourse and action.
What I love about looking at the history of emotions is that it forces us to test assumptions about what is universal, constant, and pre-determined about our emotional experiences. This is particularly useful in relation to the question of how gender determines feeling. The assumption that women are more feeling than men is based on the division between rationality and emotionality, and the privileging of the former as a route to power, success, and dominance.
Aligning women with the realm of the emotions has served as a highly effective way of excluding them from public discourse and action. Courage, for instance, has been predominantly thought of as a masculine virtue (at least since the time of the Ancient Greeks): to be courageous is to be ‘manful’ but it also to reject the urge to be ‘girlish’, which is code for ‘afraid’. Conversely, emotional comfort has primarily been associated with women, and especially with the kind of maternal care that they are often asked to perform. I’m not saying that either courage or comfort is naturally superior to the other, but it’s worth noting that we build monuments to the former and not to the latter.
At the Wellcome Collections’ Feeling Emotional event in February 2016, Susie Orbach spoke about a period in her life in which she went on ‘emotional strike’. Does our culture raise women to act as conduits for the men in their lives? If so, how?
Women are asked to take on the bulk of what has been described as ‘emotional labour’: we are still the primary caregivers in the home, and in the workplace we are expected to placate and please our male colleagues. This unfair division of labour is upheld by a flawed essentialist understanding of women as somehow ‘naturally’ more emotionally attuned to the needs and sensitivities of others. What is especially interesting about Orbach’s threat to go on ‘emotional strike’, is that this brings the language of industrial relations to bear on how we balance or manage our feelings at home. In doing so, she invites us to think about how emotions might be a kind of work in and of themselves – a hidden and unpaid labour that falls disproportionately to women.
Negative emotions spread the fastest online, with studies showing that anger is the most ‘viral’ emotion.
Is social media changing the way we feel emotions?
The kind of affective networks that social media facilitates suggest that they may be reshaping the way we feel emotions. In February 2016, Facebook replaced the ‘like’ button with a range of responses – ‘Love’, ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’ and so on. This encourages us to formulate our response to a news story or a friend’s status in terms of the limited emotional categories Facebook has made available. Critics also suggest that social networks can actually fuel a kind of emotional contagion. Negative emotions spread the fastest online, with studies showing that anger is the most ‘viral’ emotion.
But we should be wary of viewing the relationship between media and emotions as in anyway unique to our time. Throughout history, print and images have provoked the same basic questions we are dealing with today, namely how emotions are presented, provoked and created by media?
Can talking about our feelings ever be a bad thing? Ours is the culture of the ‘over-share’. Are we in danger of becoming overwhelmed or obsessed with our own feelings?
Researching the history of emotions, I’m struck by how often emotions are described as physically overwhelming. Less than 100 years ago it was actually possible to die of nostalgia. The last person to die of nostalgia was a U.S. soldier fighting in the First World War. Another example is love: to be in love in the Medieval period was to risk lovesickness, an amorous melancholy and erotic obsession that threatened the bodily health of the patient. Lovesickness was described by early modern writers as burning in the blood and liver – a humoral imbalance caused by fixing the image of the lover in the mind. Commonly, the lovesickness patient wasn’t able to understand any conversation unless it was about the beloved. A Parisian physician writing in the 12th century noted that: “From the soul’s part are depressed thoughts and worries, so that if someone talks about something, the patient scarcely understands; if, however, he speaks of the beloved, he is immediately moved.” The danger of becoming obsessed with our own feelings, and boring our friends to death with them, is apparently not specific to our own time.