How many words do we have for positive vs. negative emotions?

Have you ever stopped to analyze the words you use to express your emotions, both negative and positive?

Do you dwell on the bad or focus on the good?

It may seem that words are just words, on our lips one second and evaporating the next, vanishing as easily as they came. But words are powerful.

Perhaps you’ve heard the myth that Eskimos have 50 different words for snow. Anthropologist Franz Boas is often credited for postulating this theory.

Although, in reality, he moderately suggested that the Inuit and Yupik languages contain a few more words for snow than other languages and his theory later snowballed (no pun intended) out of control, becoming a vast exaggeration.

While a study performed in 2010 partially credited this theory, we now know that the number is nowhere near 50.

Either way, this fact points to an interesting reality: our language is shaped by our view of the world and vice versa.

As a society, we develop vocabulary for concepts that are most relevant to us and our lifestyle and, in turn, the words we use tint our view of reality. This is referred to as the linguistic relativity hypothesis or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

So, what do our positive and negative feeling words reflect about us? About our individual personalities? About our culture as a whole?

What’s in a name?

How can we possibly bottle up something as abstract as an emotion into a word? How can we extract its essence and condense it into a single name?

And, considering the wide range of emotions we experience on a daily basis, how can we quantify the words we use to express positive and negative feelings?

So many words, so little time. Nonetheless, researchers have taken on the daunting task of compiling a list of emotions and categorizing them.

Different worldwide human emotions

Tiffany Watt Smith, for instance, listed 154 different worldwide human emotions.

It is interesting to note that some of the emotions on the list retain their names in their language of origin.

For example, “dépaysement”, which refers to the feeling of being away from home, both good and bad, is expressed in its original French. We may be tempted to think that its meaning is similar to that of the word “homesickness”, used in English, but it is uniquely distinct.

Anyone who speaks more than one language can attest to the fact that sometimes there is no accurate equivalent word for a certain emotion in another language, which lends some validity to the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

Language is conditioned by each society’s unique experience.

Categorizing emotions

But a mere list of emotions seems to fall short when we consider that not all emotions feel as strong as others.

Some emotion words seem almost synonymous, but, at a closer glance, we may find that one word has a stronger connotation than another.

In an effort to categorize emotions, the book The Hourglass of Emotions identified four different emotional dimensions with intensities that vary across a point spectrum from +3 to -3 (for example, with ecstacy coming in at +3 and ranging over to its opposite, grief, at -3).

Other researchers have devised a similar system, identifying six emotional axes consisting of opposite emotions that vary in intensity. Still, it is difficult to quantify emotions.

Positive vs. negative emotions

So, the elusive question remains: how many words do we have for positive vs. negative emotions?

How often do we use each?

One 2012 study published in EPJ Data Science analyzed the frequency of positive vs. negative word usage in English, Spanish and German and found that words with a positive emotional content are used more frequently.

This conclusion lends some validity to the Pollyanna hypothesis, which suggests that there is a human tendency to focus on the positive, at least at a subconscious level.

At a conscious level, the theory postulates that our minds tend to dwell on the negative and, in a way, this study also supported that side of the hypothesis, demonstrating that negative emotion words actually contain more information than positive emotion words; that is, they’re more intense and descriptive.

This makes sense, considering how strongly we seem to feel negative emotions.

However, in subtle ways, as demonstrated through the frequency of word usage, we are natural optimists, although it might not always feel like it.

How can positive word usage affect our psychology?

It is often said that our thoughts change our behavior, but researcher Amy Cuddy has demonstrated that the reverse is also true: our behavior changes our thoughts.

If we adopt body language that reflects confidence, for example, our body chemistry changes in response and emotionally we begin to feel more confident as well.

Applying this principle to word usage, we can conclude that making an effort to incorporate more positive feeling words into our daily vocabulary will make us feel happier and more optimistic overall.

Try this:

1. Over the course of a month:
  • Take a few minutes every day to journal.
  • Write stream of consciousness style: simply write down everything that comes to mind.
  • Even if you jump from one idea to another.
  • Even if what you’re saying makes little sense or feels empty: write it down.
  • Just get it down on paper without any filters: don’t overthink it.
2. At the end of the month:
  • Read over your writing.
  • Circle every positive emotion word you can find in green and every negative emotion word in red.
  • Step back and scan your writing:
  • Which color prevails?
  • What does your language reflect about your outlook on life?
  • Are you an optimist or a pessimist? 

Sometimes we speak without thinking. We criticize ourselves more than we should and dwell on our negative feelings without realizing the impact our words have on our psychology.

Seeing it on paper can help you evaluate any negative thought patterns you may have.

Be aware of your vocabulary

Once you are aware of what kind of vocabulary you are using, you can take steps to make changes in your thinking patterns.

Continue to journal if you find value in that and see how many times you can catch yourself using negative emotion words.

Write down your negative feelings and express them with their full intensity. Let them live on the page. Then let them go. See if you can find the silver lining in your situation.

Replace negative words with positive ones, interpreting your situation as a learning experience.

It may seem difficult, but the good news is that research demonstrates that we are natural optimists at heart. It’s in our nature. All we have to do is tap into that.

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