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Defining emotions and moods have a history of being something we have had issues with over the years, a downside to being an emotionally complex species.
What are the six emotions we use as a roadmap to how we are feeling? Happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.
Some practitioners of Chinese medicine think our organs control our moods; the kidneys are in charge of fear, for example, which is one argument for why some of us pee ourselves when we’re frightened. Grief is associated with the lungs, and anger is directly associated with the liver and gallbladder.
Maybe that’s why in order to try and fully explain everything that we feel as humans some new words had to be introduced into the English language. Defining an emotion has been an ever-evolving process for decades, and we have numerous studies to prove it. In 1980, American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik introduced his Wheel of Emotions, a theory based on humans having eight primary emotional states, not six; joy, acceptance, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger and anticipation.
Plutchik concluded these emotions could be mixed and matched to form the foundation upon which all other complex emotions (such as love) are built.
A 2017 study by the University of California, Berkeley’s Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner took that idea a little further in the opposite direction and split human emotions into 27 separate categories. But what about potential subcategories, or the grey areas between black and white definitions?
Enter into the picture writer John Koenig, who spent seven years compiling and defining those little spaces in his continuously updated Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and it’s some of Koenig’s definitions we feature below. Finally, you might have a term for the weirdly indescribable feeling you’ve been having lately.
The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable—their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque—as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there’s someone standing there, but unable to tell if you’re looking in or looking out.
The subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.
The desire to care less about things—to loosen your grip on your life, to stop glancing behind you every few steps, afraid that someone will snatch it from you before you reach the end zone—rather to hold your life loosely and playfully, like a volleyball, keeping it in the air, with only quick fleeting interventions, bouncing freely in the hands of trusted friends, always in play.
The unsettling awareness of your own heartbeat, whose tenuous muscular throbbing feels less like a metronome than a nervous ditty your heart is tapping to itself, the kind that people compulsively hum or sing while walking in complete darkness, as if to casually remind the outside world, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.
The amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm, listening to waves of rain pattering against the roof like an argument upstairs, whose muffled words are unintelligible but whose crackling release of built-up tension you understand perfectly.
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 sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out, that you’ll dutifully pass on the joke of being alive without ever learning the punchline—the name of the beneficiary of all human struggle, the sum of the final payout of every investment ever made in the future—which may not suit your sense of humor anyway and will probably involve how many people it takes to change a lightbulb.