Northeastern University

What’s the difference between sad and angry?

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Photo by Toni Birrer via Flickr

How are you feeling right now? Can you pinpoint the specific emotions? Maybe a little excited that it’s almost the weekend, but also sad because it’s raining outside and you won’t be able to bike home like you’d hoped. Or maybe you can’t get that level of differentiation and all you can say is “unpleasant” or “grumpy” (which, incidentally, is how I’m feeling at the moment, probably because of that swollen lymph node in my throat).

Anyway, it turns out that some people have a harder time than others differentiating between their emotions. For instance, things like anger and frustration sometimes get confused as the same thing and over-generalized as “upset.” In an article soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues at the University of Michigan hypothesized that people who struggle with depression may tend to fall into that latter category. In a press release from the journal, the study’s first author, Emre Demiralp said “it is difficult to improve your life without knowing whether you are sad or angry about some aspect of it.”

The researchers tested their hypothesis by giving a group of 106 people (half with depression, half without) a Palm Pilot that asked that same question–”how are you feeling right now”–at eight random points throughout the day for seven days. They were asked to rate eleven emotions on a scale of one to four, based on how much each described their current state. (In case you’re curious, those were: sad, anxious, angry, frustrated, ashamed, disgusted, guilty, happy, excited, alert and active).

They used a standard correlation test to calculate how often different emotions showed up together. So, if you often said you were angry and frustrated at the same time, those two would be highly correlated and it would indicate a lower capacity to differentiate between the two.

Just as they expected, people without depression tended to be better at differentiating their negative emotions than those with depression. When it came to positive emotions, however, the two groups were the same. The researchers also looked at how intensely people experienced their emotions and how often their emotions varied. Neither of these differed between the depressed and healthy groups.

What does it all mean, you ask? Well, expanding on Demiralp’s statement, it essentially provides a new cognitive treatment strategy for depression. If you’re feeling grumpy and just can’t get out of that negative funk, perhaps it would be more helpful to pull the grumpiness apart (or “unpack it” as my psychologist friend likes to say) — is it really just a swollen lymph node or are you also sad, anxious and angry?

If you can figure out what you’re feeling, that might also help you figure out why you’re feeling that way. You’re sad because it’s the third anniversary of your pet fish Jones’ last day on this good earth; you’re anxious because you have a big deadline on Monday; and you’re angry because your sister didn’t call you back. Again.

Now you can start to address those things and hopefully begin to mitigate the symptoms of depression. Or, as they say, to turn that frown upside down.


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