By Dr. David Kreindler
A common question at the doctor’s office is, “How have you been feeling?” Answering this is more complicated than it may seem.
Psychologists divide human mental functioning into three broad areas: (i) thinking (“cognition”), (ii) willing (“conation”), and (iii) feeling (“affect”). Feelings, in turn, are divided into ‘moods’ and ‘emotions’, and there are a number of differences between the two. Emotions typically arise and fade quickly, and are present for shorter periods of time as compared to moods, which arise and fade slowly and are present for longer. Furthermore, emotions are directed at something (e.g., “I was worried about the dog”), as opposed to moods, which aren’t (e.g., “I was feeling anxious”).
A good example of mood is when someone “wakes up on the wrong side of the bed”, feeling irritable throughout the day (i.e. for hours rather than minutes), snapping at little things that normally would be dealt with calmly. Even if something good happens, the irritable mood will colour the person’s reaction to the good event. In other words, how you’re feeling at a point in time is a combination of your background mood plus whatever emotions you may be feeling at that moment.
While there are different ways in which feelings can be organized, experts agree that feelings are at least two-dimensional – that is, they can be sorted in at least two distinct ways. One scheme classifies feelings in terms of their degrees of negative vs. positive content. For example, “miserable”, “sad”, “bored”, “tired”, “sleepy” and “calm” are feelings without much positive content but with decreasing degrees of negative content.
Feelings are expressed in two main ways: with words and with facial expressions. While adults are generally skilled at labeling what they see or feel, children only gradually acquire the words to label others’ feelings. Typically, the first label children can accurately use (by the time they’re 3 years) is “happy”, then “angry” and “sad” (by around 4½), next “surprised” and “scared” (around age 5), usually followed by “disgusted” (by around 5½). Regardless of their mother tongue, children are much better able to visually perceive feelings than to label them with words.
To return to our original question – “How have you been feeling?” – the longer the interval you’re being asked about, the more different feelings you may have experienced. It is quite possible to be feeling more than one thing simultaneously: if you’ve won a free tropical weekend vacation on the same weekend a long-lost friend is coming into town, most people will describe a mix of feelings.
Finally, to complicate things further, people don’t recall feelings accurately, but rather skew their recollections, unconsciously exaggerating how positively they’ve felt recently, but also biasing their recollections based on their current mood, their recent mood, and any ‘peaks’ to their mood. These kinds of distortions are one reason why mood disorders specialists encourage patients to keep mood journals, in which daily mood and other symptom ratings are recorded each day.
While all of this may not help you to answer a question about how you’ve been feeling, it may help you to appreciate why such a simple-sounding question can be so complicated.
Dr. Kreindler is the Interim Head of Youth Psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and leads Sunnybrook’s Centre for Mobile Computing in Mental Health. He specializes in adolescent mood and anxiety disorders, and has a particular research interest in understanding how moods come to be.