How do you feel?

How do you feel?

When something’s not quite right, the first thing we’ll probably notice is an emotion. Mad, sad, scared or glad – these four represent an easy short-hand way of identifying the common emotions we all experience. When you don’t know how you feel, one or more of those four can help name the feeling.

Surprise and disgust are two other basic emotions thought to be universal and observable across cultures and species. But our emotional lives are far richer than that short list. Look at all those emoticons!

A recent study has mapped 27 different emotions. They are not distinct but grade into one another: anxiety to fear, to horror, to disgust, for example. Or calmness to aesthetic appreciation, to joy, to admiration, to awe, to adoration.

The richness of human experience won’t be easily captured by just a few feelings, let alone by striving for continuous happy feelings. In the face of difficulty, or loss, or injustice, it would be strange to experience only happiness. Humdrum and bored and discontented are not happy feelings. But they could spur us to action.

Positive Psychology’s PERMA model (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement) obviously values happy feelings, but it’s easy to see that the other elements might involve some testing times. Achievement won’t come without discouragement and frustration.

Often, if not usually, we experience mixtures of emotions. We can have tears of joy. At times of transition such as when moving from primary to secondary, or finishing school, young people may have feelings of grief mixed with anticipation – or maybe dread – as the old is left behind while the new is mostly unknown.

Apart from our own emotional experiences, what about understanding the feelings of others? It can be harder than you might expect.

Research has shown some children and young people have problems reading emotions. Children with strong social anxiety can mistake anger for sadness, so they approach someone to comfort them and may get a nasty reaction, reinforcing the anxiety. Teenagers who have trauma symptoms can misread angry faces as fearful. Kids with severe rule-breaking behaviour sometimes see sad faces as angry, leading them mistakenly to get defensive and hostile.

How you feel and how others feel can quickly get complicated! But understanding our patterns can help make sense of our experiences and enrich our lives.


On the school website there is advice on finding information and support for a range of needs (Current families > Counselling).

Martin Graham
School Counsellor