What’s the difference between sad and angry?

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.