Friday, February 15, 2013

How are you (feeling)?

How are you (feeling)?

I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of casual conversations between friends, family, and other relations begin with some variation of the question, "How are you?"

There's "how ya doing?" "how's it going?" "how's it hangin'?" and yet, for all of the imaginative ways of questioning, most people respond with nothing but "good".  Now, I can hear all of the nitpickers who will reply, "Superman does good, you are well." But that's not the point. The point is that this vague exchange rarely leads to anything past the initial Q & A. The conversation rolls on to other topics.


Why do we ritualistically perform this exchange without any second thought? And what do we really mean when we ask, "How are you?"

These questions can be brushed off by the superficial thinker by claiming that it's just the way it is. We perform rituals, we learned this exchange when we were younger, it's just a nice way to start a conversation, ect. But I think there is a subtle plea in the question of "How are you?" I think that the question is incomplete.

I think the real question here is, "How are you feeling."

Of course we all want to feel good and through empathy, most humans have this same general desire for everybody else.  But with the wide range of emotions humans are capable of, how did we ever get to the point where the crucial question, "How are you feeling?" is only ever answered by "Good," or "fine," and if not, it is responded to with a statement regarding a physical condition. "I'm tired." or "I'm hungry." or "Not so good... I've got a headache."

Sadly, these responses don't even come close to hitting the mark. We aren't asking each other how our body feels, we are asking how the SELF feels, how "YOU" feel.  This is a reference to emotion and emotion alone.

Even if you are feeling "good", such a vague response is not engaging or enlightening.  The vast range of human emotions cannot be boxed into any single word, even one as magical as "good".  We can be excited, relaxed, amused, thoughtful, hopeful, triumphant, ect. ect. ect. There are too many "good" feelings to count! Responding with the all ambiguous "good" hides much more than it reveals.

Speaking of hiding, very rarely will anybody share unpleasant feelings when asked the question "How are you (feeling)?" Annoyance may be explained with a headache, boredom or sadness might be explained with being tired, or anger with hunger.  It seems the vast majority of individuals have a strong aversion to accurately expressing their own emotions, and even worse, it seems that some couldn't even find the words if they did want to express them.  They are strangers to themselves.

Now, don't get me wrong, many people do openly share their emotions... when they are sure they won't be controversial. Boss made you work overtime? You know you can get empathy from your buddies, as long as you don't start talking about how helpless you really feel that you can't get a better job.

Going through a bad breakup? Everyone knows it feels "bad", so you share it, but don't you dare share your guilt and embarrassment for picking such a lousy partner. And don't forget your gnawing anxiety about the fact that you have no idea why you picked them in the first place.

Mom won't let you out past 10? Tell your friends at school how much you hate her and they might help you sneak out, but never tell them how terribly depressed and empty you feel when you wonder if you're worthless to your own mother.

We give off subtle signals to prevent uncomfortable knowledge; "good" is a green light for curiosity  "bad" means "sympathize and ask no further."  When we ask "How are you" we are merely testing the waters.  We are deciding whether or not the conversation will be pleasant, or not, the exact opposite of what the question ought to imply.

When we wonder at somebody, "How are you (feeling)?" It should be an act of genuine curiosity  not some subtle test.  Only through an accurate and honest expression of our emotions can we truly connect with others, thus making "How are you (feeling)?" one of the most important questions we could ever ask another human being.

I think the typical responses to "How are you (feeling)?" are symptoms of a tragically alienated society. We are all discrete, disconnected atoms bouncing off each other, and just like Bohr's model we attribute unclear, ambiguous labels of "positive" and "negative" to our emotions and pretend we are expressing ourselves.

Studies show that ostracism and alienation can cause the exact same neuronal activity as physical pain.  I don't think it's any wonder that depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, ect. are steadily rising in America.  The symptoms of our ill culture can be found at the initiation of any typical conversation.
Now, this isn't an article about WHY people desire alienation from emotions (and therefore, from each other), if you are interested in that then I would recommend a careful study of Stefan Molyneux's work, especially Real Time Relationships: The Logic of Love. This merely addresses a major symptom of the real problem, and by exposing and discussing these symptoms we come ever closer to fixing it.

So I beg of you, try to make it a habit to be aware of your feelings.  Next time somebody asks you "How are you (feeling)?", try to narrow down how you're feeling and try to describe it unambiguously. It might be tough at first, and you might look a bit odd standing there trying to put your emotions into words, but like everything else, it gets easier with practice.


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