For a long time, I have struggled with the colloquial greeting/question, “how are you?” Part of the reason I struggle with this is because it lacks specificity. Aside from the question being difficult to answer because of its generality, the question makes me feel trapped inside of only being able to answer with either “good” or “bad.” The frequency in which we use these labels to assign a value judgment to our circumstances undermines our psychological flexibility. Moreover, “good” and “bad” are words that distance us from being vulnerable and sincere.
Psychological flexibility is largely dependent on the language we use to appraise our situational demands and assign causality to the outcomes.
Appraisal is the process of interpreting your experiences. Often, you are interpreting what the potential consequences of an experience might be and your ability to cope with those consequences. For example, WHAT do you make of your own competence and confidence with public speaking? Do you view it as more of a challenge to meet or a threat to beat? Even this distinction is more nuanced and specific than appraising public speaking as something you deem to be “good” (i.e., you like to do) or “bad” (i.e., something you don’t like to do).
Similarly, assigning causality is attributing meaning, i.e., stating WHY something happened the way it did. For example, consider WHY someone didn’t text you back? Is it because she doesn’t care about you as much as you care about her, she forgot, she never got your text, or none of the above?
The larger our vocabulary is to construe WHAT is happening and WHY it is happening, the more prepared we are for HOW to handle it. In Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research on How Emotions Are Made, she refers to possessing and utilizing a wide range of emotional descriptors as emotional granularity.
Because “how are you?” is more of a polite nicety than a question implying genuine curiosity, we have become conditioned to respond with “good” or “bad,” as opposed to using words that express more granularity like blissful, engaged, delighted, eager, and peaceful, or troubled, timid, disappointed, disgusted, and restless.
These words help us to become more flexible because they refer to more dimensions than just pleasant and unpleasant. Similarly, Annie Duke, in her book How to Make Decisions, criticizes the use of a pros and cons list because it doesn’t account for the magnitude nor probability of what is considered good or bad, i.e., how bad is bad and how likely is it that what you listed as bad will occur?
Perhaps, there is a strong correlation between the words we use to tell stories about our view of reality and the quality of our decision making. Therefore, when we evolve the way in which we answer the question “how are you,” we will evolve the competency of our decision making…