The Science of Understanding Your Feelings
Updated: Jul 19
How you feel is a unique, personal experience. Others can empathize with that feeling, but they can never experience it for themselves. Your feelings are unique to you.
In conversation, I’ll often categorize someone else’s decision or thought as either rational or emotional. Rational being logical, scientific, understandable. Emotional being unthought out, whimsical, impulsive. Due to the individuality of emotions (unlike, say, physics, which has one set of rules for everyone and everything) and the challenge with understanding what drives others’ emotions, applying a common scientific framework to understanding emotions is incredibly challenging. This challenge is what we at UpBeing spend our days thinking about.
In this post, we'll examine how we can apply a common scientific framework to help individuals understand their emotions and the behaviours that cause and are caused by those emotions.
Quantitative measurement of feelings is essential to understanding your wellbeing
In our last blog post, we wrote about The Art of Labeling your Feelings. One of the key takeaways from that post was that there are defined methodologies that you can use to label your feelings. Some of these methodologies allow us to assign a numeric value or score to a feeling. For example the Valence-Arousal Scale gives us an energy score and an attitude score which together, describe a feeling. At UpBeing, we believe quantitatively measuring emotion is critical to truly understanding your wellbeing. The three reasons for this will be discussed in turn below.
1. It allows you to visualize how your feelings change over time
As a thought experiment, try to remember how you felt when you woke up yesterday morning. Now try two mornings ago. Most folks that we talk to cannot do this.
We believe that understanding how your current feelings relate to your past feelings, is critical for improving your future feelings. To do this effectively, emotional states must be quantified.
In our initial, low fidelity pilot, we created a wellbeing score that could be plotted against behaviours to visualise correlations. We also showed how a user’s productivity, energy and attitude changed week over week. Users found visualizing the changes in their feelings over time helpful in reflecting on their week and why one week may have “felt” better than another.
2. It allows you to understand the effect that individual behaviours have on your feelings
Most people have behaviours that make their day (or break it). A fight with a loved one may render your day bad, irrespective of how good work was. Exercising in the morning may make you feel more productive in the afternoon, but only when coupled with a healthy breakfast.
Understanding the key activities, people, and behaviours that have an outsized effect on your wellbeing is essential to improving your wellbeing. After all, it is one thing to know how you feel this week compared to last, but it is another thing entirely to know what behavioural changes may have caused any differences. Understanding these behaviour-feeling correlations allows you to actually do something about how you are feeling.
In our pilot we tried to articulate this with the limited behavioural data we had. Given that we only had behaviours that users consciously thought about and reported, users told us that in many cases, we reinforced what they already knew about some of their key activities. However, as we begin our second pilot and start to analyze passively collected behaviour (calendar information, usage data, fitness tracker information, Spotify data, etc.), we will begin elucidating the relationships that people are not already aware of.
3. It allows us to create baselines and understand at a community level how people are feeling and the behaviours and activities that bring them up and down
Because people’s exposure to their community tends to be increasingly via social media, misconceptions about how fellow community members are feeling are growing (see WSJ’s coverage on Meta). We fear that this is only going to get worse as more and more facets of our lives are moved online. Before social media, you could look around at how people were actually feeling around you. Your community could check in on you and you could check in on them.
Now, imagine if instead of scrolling through Instagram and seeing people’s vacation selfies you could see how people are actually feeling. Imagine if you could see quantitatively that within your community, whether that be other people in your neighbourhood or other people who like the same band as you, that you aren’t alone.
UpBeing is taking steps towards creating this vision. Every person that uses UpBeing is unique and therefore, has a unique wellbeing baseline. However, each person is also part of a larger community and, if they choose to be part of an UpBeing community, will be able to see what is driving their community up and down. People will be able to visualize and truly understand that they are not alone.
Of course, the privacy considerations of this feature are critical. We’re working with users to identify any concerns that they may have and any features that they hope for. Our current plan is for this to be completely anonymous. So you may know generally how people in your community are feeling, but not know about any individual user. However, as with any feature, engaging in an ongoing dialogue with our users will be critical for shaping the end product.
Even in our pilot, with incredibly limited data and a small user base, we were able to find common behavioural drivers of feelings. Some of these drivers, like the fact that an individual’s amount of sleep is the largest primary driver of daily wellbeing, may seem obvious. However, as we measure behaviours and external events more passively we are incredibly excited about surfacing the wellbeing drivers within a community (positive or negative) that are less expected.
By quantitatively measuring feelings we can, in a scientific way, develop a true understanding of the behaviours that influence our wellbeing.
Once we’ve established these correlations, the question then becomes one of causation - Is it behaviours driving your feelings or is it your feelings driving your behaviours? We know they are related, but what comes first?
Behaviour and Feelings — The Chicken or the Egg
Once we’ve measured both feelings and behaviours, we can begin to examine correlations between the two. But what comes first? Do your behaviours cause certain feelings or do your feelings cause you to behave a certain way.
One of Adam Grant’s (an UpBeing advisor) most recent podcasts with Esther Duflo discussed this in detail. At around the 34 minute mark, they have an insightful conversation about relating behaviours and attitude/beliefs and they brought up multiple examples in their research showing that changes in behaviours happen before a change in attitude. Esther brought up a specific example/experiment where she used specific Facebook advertisements (having doctors tell people not to travel during COVID) to drive a change in travel behaviour (even in red states where people were very against travel restrictions). This then caused lower COVID rates of transmission which in turn altered people’s perception of the dangers of travelling. In a second example, she described a case where India in 1994 established quotas (reservations) in constitutional amendments to reserve 33% of seats in local governments for women. This effectively forced folks to elect female candidates despite widespread misogyny. The citizens represented by these women realized, after the fact, that women were just as good (or better) at governing than men. It was a change in behaviour that precluded a change in belief.
This relationship between behaviours initiating a change in feelings has also been studied in individuals, a field known as behavioural activation. For example, a person with depression may decide to stay inside, which causes them to have less opportunities to find meaning in life, which causes them to be more depressed, which makes them stay inside for longer. If you can break this cycle (i.e. go out for a walk), often the feelings will follow.
There are a multitude of examples of the inverse arising as well - where a change in attitude causes a change in behaviour. I, like millions of other Canadians, used Vote Compass to help understand who I should vote for. As our understanding of COVID evolves, individuals have adjusted what they do to protect themselves - remember when many of us thought that wearing gloves and sanitizing often was as important as wearing a mask? It’s clear that changes in knowledge and feelings about that information preclude changes in behaviour as well.
The relationship between behaviours and feelings is a classic chicken and egg conundrum. At UpBeing we believe the reality is probably somewhere in between - certain feelings will change certain behaviours and certain behaviours are likely to cause certain feelings. We want to empower users to explore this relationship and discover novel insights that help them move up from their wellbeing baseline.
We are all individuals but we are also all human
So why understand our own feelings in the first place? The obvious reason, and the one we’ve articulated so far, is to help you understand how to feel better. But there are other reasons to understand your own feelings.
Think back to a time when someone you loved was having emotional pain. How did this affect you? We are social creatures, our behaviours are influenced by others and our emotions are influenced by others, especially those closest to us. In my meditation practice, the instructor sometimes guides us to picture someone we care about and then asks us to wish that person well, to wish them to be happy and free from suffering. Practising kindness is known to be one of the most direct routes to personal happiness. Doing this practice genuinely makes me feel better. For me, this application grounded the concept that our wellbeing exists within the context of others' wellbeing.
UpBeing can not just measure your own emotions, it can measure the influence other people’s feelings have on your own. We all have a support network - a group of people that our lives are intertwined with and that we rely on and are relied upon for emotional support. By introducing this concept to UpBeing we can determine the effect to which others’ wellbeing influences your own.
Taking this one step further, our own awareness of our own emotions is directly correlated with our ability to manage others’ emotions. In fact, the definition of emotional intelligence is "the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically." In other words, developing an understanding of our own emotions allows us to develop a better understanding and empathy towards others.
We believe UpBeing will not only help you build up your own understanding of your own emotions, it will also help you develop your emotional intelligence skills holistically, making you a more empathetic person and a better leader.
Clarity on how we understand our feelings
Through reflection, research, experiments, and speaking to experts, we feel we have more clarity on the way UpBeing will help you to understand your feelings and in turn your wellbeing. UpBeing will shine a light on what drives your feelings by:
1. Quantitatively measuring those feelings,
2. Giving you insight into the causality of how your behaviour affects your feelings and vice versa, and
3. Taking into account the inter-personality of your behaviour-feeling relationship.
Importantly, this will all be done without you actively tracking your behaviours - more on this in our next post.
If this was interesting to you and you want to be part of the UpBeing journey, we encourage you to join the waitlist. It's the best way that anyone can help shape the future of UpBeing!
Sam & Sean