The Emotional Arcs of Stories

Kurt Vonnegut, about a thousand years after Aristotle, famously mapped out the many shapes of stories, but now Andrew Reagan at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington has mapped out the emotional arcs of stories. He used sentiment analysis and over 1,700 stories to produce the most common emotional arcs of stories. He found six core arcs.

The six basic emotional arcs are these:

A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.

...It turns out the most popular are stories that follow the Icarus and Oedipus arcs and stories that follow more complex arcs that use the basic building blocks in sequence. In particular, the team says the most popular are stories involving two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy.

~ Technology Review


Stress, Empathy, and Anxiety

I'm a sensitive person. Thanks to a rough childhood, I tend to be hyper-aware of people and their emotional states. As you can imagine, this sometimes stresses me out. There are a few studies that hint at the interplay here:

Anxiety can reduce empathy (speaks to an anxious state)

Anxious people tend to be more empathetic (speaks to the anxious trait/personality)

Here's a great explanation of these seemingly contradictory studies by the good folks over at the Greater Good center.

To note:

"They found that stress-prone people were good at cognitive empathy—in other words, accurately identifying inner states based on outer clues. But there’s a critical caveat, for the purposes of our discussion: They weren’t as good at 'affective empathy.' That’s a science-y way of saying that they could recognize an emotion, but they weren’t necessarily feeling it themselves.

This makes perfect sense, in the context of the research to date. Stress mobilizes the body’s resources to survive an immediate threat. Among other effects, it helps narrow our attention and zero in on the threat. If you’re prone to be socially anxious, meeting strangers stresses you out.

That’s why anxious people can appear to be shy; they’re simply avoiding stressful stimuli, often going deep rather than wide in their social networks. Walking into a party or asking for help from people can take enormous courage. In those moments, their bodies are flooded by hormones that help them focus on threats—threats that are embodied in the faces of other people. This helps with cognitive empathy.

But I bet the reason why their affective empathy goes down is that they’re momentarily denying themselves access to their own inner states. Their attention sharpens and goes outward, which makes perception more accurate. But at the same time, they’re instinctively protecting themselves from getting caught up in the feelings they detect. This might help make socializing emotionally manageable. It might also make them seem cold or just a little stiff, in addition to shy."



Emotional Equations

"Our emotions preceded our ability to put them into words. The emotional center of the human brain, the medulla oblongata, formed before the thinking part of the brain, the neocortex. Scientists from Charles Darwin to Paul Ekman to Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall have found common emotions in all animals, including human beings. And the pioneering work of scientists such as Antonio Damasio, Candace Pert, Joseph LeDoux, and others have that our thinking and feelings are part of a complext mind-body ecosystem."

~Chip Conley, Emotional Equations



Keeping a diary has been found to be "a valuable therapeutic means for relieving emotional distress and promoting well-being." A study asked adolescents to write a blog:

"The field experiment included randomly assigned adolescents, preassessed as having social–emotional difficulties, to 6 groups (26–28 participants in each): Four groups were assigned to blogging (writing about their difficulties or free writing; either open or closed to responses), a group assigned to writing a diary on personal computers, and a no-treatment control group. Participants in the 5 writing groups were instructed to post messages at least twice a week over 10 weeks.... Results showed that participants maintaining a blog significantly improved on all measures. Participants writing about their difficulties in blogs open to responses gained the most."



Are you getting enough sleep? How do you feel when you wake up? It turns out how you sleep says a lot about your personality and how you feel at the start of your day. Professor Chris Idzikowski, director of the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service, analysed six common sleeping positions and found that each is linked to a particular personality type.

No matter what your sleep position, Harvard Business School Associate Professor Amy Cuddy says sleeping in a fetal position can make you less confident because it's a lower power position.

To counter-act the potential effect of the sleep position on your emotions, she says you should take the time to either stretch out in a confident position before leaving your bed or strike a powerful pose before leaving for work.

What's a confident position or power pose?  See her Ted talk here.






I often think that I am learning, truly learning for the first time in my life. Why? Because the trauma of my childhood took up so much of my cognitive processes - in childhood, my twenties and frankly most of my thirties. A stressed brain is not completely available to take in information and focus on the task at hand. A stressed brain is just trying to survive. “What the science tells us about how stressed brains react to change, loss or threat is that children will often violate rules because they feel profoundly out of control. It’s a survival reaction and it may actually be intended to control the situation.” Chris Blodgett, a clinical psychologist who directs the CLEAR Trauma Center at Washington State University, in the NYTimes

Even when I was in the midst of my stressful childhood, I knew it affected my ability to show up but I didn’t know what to do about it nor did my teachers. Today I see so many kids and adults who are still dealing with the trauma in some way, shape or form. Understanding that trauma is not just being in a violent community but a violent home – physical and/or verbal, is a big deal. And it doesn’t even have to be abuse – it can be a chronic chaotic environment or one of neglect.

I’ve talked about ACE here before. Where are you on the list? How is trauma still showing up in your life? What are you doing to overcome it?

I can tell you from my own experience, you can overcome it. But it’s work. And the first step is getting in touch with your emotions. They are okay to have – all of them. The goal is not to suppress them or over-identify with them, but to regulate them. How do you regulate your emotions? You first label them. “Oh, I’m angry” is a good start. Then you let them rise and then go away. You don’t dwell on them. Then you explore the thoughts that gave rise to them. What triggered the emotion?

Then you question/challenge the thought.

Then you choose how you want to be in the moment.

Don’t let these steps fool you – this isn’t easy, but practice makes it easier.

Then you find that you're calmer, your more at peace.  Form there the world opens up, and you're ready to learn.


Emotional Foundation

I'm not exactly sure where it comes from, but since an early age I have been motivated by a sense of justice. As a result, I notice inequality. I see it not only the lack of exposure or the lack of opportunity that keeps many communities in the U.S. impoverished, but also in something more basic – the lack of an emotional foundation – an even playing field of decent parenting and instruction. It's the invisible divide with far-reaching effects. Do you see it?

Do We Ever Leave High School?

I sometimes feel like my life coping skills haven't changed much from what they were in my junior year of high school.  So it's comforting to learn that this is pretty normal, if not what I want for myself.  Why? Studies suggest "that  memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained" - it's called the "reminiscence bump." In fact, a lot of who we are is developed in adolescence.  According to developmental psychologist, Laurence Steinberg: "if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.”

It's a period of great fear. Research shows that adolescents are in far less control of their fear response than children or adults. Which could mean that, lacking a way to deal with fear in adolescence, many carry that fear into adulthood.

It's a period of shame. Brené Brown says shame “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

According to Brown we use one of three methods to cope with shame. We avoid it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we engage it, “by people-pleasing”; or we use "shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.”

No matter the method, she says that we're likely to use that method for the rest of our lives.

So do we ever leave high school? Maybe not.

Facebook and Feelings

No doubt you've seen it by now. Facebook wants to know how you feel. Thumbnail_fbfeelings

So what does the creator of gottaFeeling think about this?

Well, to start, some of the listed “emotions” are not actually emotions. For example, “tired” is technically not an emotion –it’s a thought. I know – a little too nuanced perhaps for people to grasp.

Still, they’re going to find what I found, most people will only share emotions that are considered “positive” on Facebook. I did a survey of many of my gottaFeeling users and received the following comment – “Facebook is only for sharing positive things” from multiple users (you can share your emotion via Facebook on the gottaFeeling app).

I’m curious how long the effort will last. I personally think it’s an effort to forge intimacy (the area around which Facebook is most criticized), but I don’t have high hopes for its success. What do you think?


Confusion is good for you. According to one recent study students who experienced confusion when studying actually did better on the test. In fact, it seems an "impasse" of some sort is required for successful learning.

"Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of 'cognitive disequilbrium'; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result." Put another way:

"Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible."

~ George Saunders


You learn something every day. A young iOS developer recently gave me his feedback on my gottaFeeling iPhone app. He believed that the icon for the app: looked like an Emo. What's an emo?

It's a young man (usually) who follows the emo subculture - defined by dark bangs in eyes, tight skinny black jeans and angst. See also the Wikipedia definition of emo.

Funny when I created the app I had never even heard of emo.

On Happiness

People who have a version of the 5-HTT gene, a gene efficient at moving serotonin (known to improve mood), are more likely to be satisfied with their lives. So says research out of the London School of Economics and Political Science. But before you think you're predestined for happiness or not, you can affect your mood. Studies have shown that performing acts of kindness or even listing what you're grateful for can help you to feel happy.

But if you put too much emphasis on being happy you can find yourself depressed, according to a study in the journal Emotion.

Happiness, like everything else, is a balance.

Want to learn more about how we experience our emotions? Check out additional findings from gottaFeeling users at gottaFeeling.com.

This Emotional Life

If you haven't seen it, I recommend it: This Emotional Life, a three part television series put on by the producers of NOVA. On resilience:


For more on the series and a discussion on happiness, click here.

The conclusion? Relationships - the ones we have with family, community and ourselves - are ultimately what makes us happy.


It bothers me when people use the word mood for emotions or feelings. Mainly because growing up I was accused of being "moody." From that experience I came to believe that calling someone "moody" was failing to validate that the person has feelings. So moods, feelings, emotions - what's the difference? Basically feelings and emotions are thought to be interchangeable and the scientific term for them is "affect." Moods are basically emotions, but emotions are thought to have a clear focus while moods are thought to be more unfocused and diffuse. While emotions are instantaneous reactions, moods are emotions jumbled up with thoughts that affect outlook.