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  • Writer's pictureEvan Warfel

Emotion-concepts in other cultures and other links

We adapt to what perceive, and thus one way to improve how we make decisions is to more fine-grainedly interpret the signals the rest of our brain gives us. Recently, I've come across three new emotional concepts from other cultures; all are worth thinking about, and each of which I'll share here. I've also come across other interesting links and articles, which you'll find beneath the first section on emotion-concepts.


The Japanese have a concept called "mono no aware" (pronounced mah-noh noh ah-wa-rey) which means something like "an awareness of our moment-to-moment existence." To quote wikipedia's more clinical language, mono no aware "a sensitivity towards ephemera." One blogger describes it as "the gentle sadness of things." As I understand it, mono no aware "happens" by being cognizant of the transient nature of reality, when one can appreciate certain things in the moment or as they are happening.

Cherry blossoms are often given as an example of mono no aware. Japanese death poems also exemplify it. Or as Basho, one of Japan's most celebrate poets, wrote before he died:

Falling ill on a journey

my dreams go wandering

over withered fields

The very format of a Haiku lends itself well to expressing mono no aware, if you look for it --

Old silent pond

a frog jumps in

splash! stillness

(This another famous one by Basho.) In fact, the entire structure and strict rules around the number of syllables per line makes much more sense when the point of this type of poem is to make it easy to express mono no aware.

Or for another example, take a look at when Louie C.K. discusses cell-phones (both the content of the story, and his telling of it) is another example of mono no aware. And while never named explicitly, James Clavell captures several different facets of mono no aware in his masterpiece Shogun.

Moreover, "mono no aware" is the best summary of that book I can think of.

What makes mono no aware interesting is it seems to be best caught in the moment, as it is being experienced, rather than retro-refelectively. (It's good to be cognizant of other emotions in the moment, too, but my point is that the meaning of mono no aware is explicitly bound up in recognizing the passing transience that gives rise to it.) And I'm willing to bet one can, with time, recognize the mono no aware inherent in experience mono no aware. Even a gentle sadness at the impermanence of a thing is, itself, fleeting. Given that we constantly undergo subtle changes, and never experience the same day twice, everything can be a once in a lifetime occurrence. Including any and all experiences of mono no aware.


In German, there's a concept called sehnsucht, which can be thought of a deep longing for wholesome things.

Given that emotions and feelings are, by and large, not consciously willed into existence, experiencing sehnsucht (as I understand it and have defined above) is likely a sign that your brain "intuitively" understands the information you have that informs "the picture" or "vision" as decently accurate.

  • If you feel Sehnsucht as longing for deep connections with other people, this implies your brain has some concrete notions of what deep, non-needy (to name one quality of many) relationships would be like.

  • If you feel Sehnsucht for a job that pays enough, is meaningful, and growth inducing, your brain likely has some notion of what would be like.

  • Sehnsucht also describes longing to be able to perform, create or do work at such a level that it is acknowledged by other people also capable of doing the same. To experience this feeling, you'd have to have some decently accurate picture of what your creative output would have to be like.

In other words, the "vision" that precedes sehnsucht is more than just an imagined, sit-and-dream flight of fancy generated by your ego. (I doubt, for instance, sehnsucht can be felt for a vision that's solely informed by what you see on television.)

Most profoundly, it's possible to experience sehnsucht for a better world. It's happened to me, which is how I discovered the sehnsucht Rainbow Connection connection. Perhaps this is a good filter for some of the more over-eager silicon valley types who believe they are "changing the world." No doubt many of them are. But if people haven't experienced sehnsucht, that could be a clue that they have more internal exploration to do.

Experiencing sehnsucht means you can see clearly what you want, clearly enough to deeply long for it, which means you have what you need to pursue your goals.


Very roughly, Wabi Sabi is idea that nothing is perfect. Snarkily, Wabi Sabi goes on to say that as long as this is true, why not compete in terms of flaws as well as features. Artisans potters, for instance, if making something in the Wabi Sabi style will intentionally make cups with layers of subtle, intentional flaws in them.

Wabi-Sabi is one defense against perfectionism; it's also slightly different using "good enough." I say this because "Good enough" suggests that you are compromising the integrity of what you are doing, and maybe you should do so to avoid being a perfectionist. However, "good enough" presupposes that perfection is possible.

"Wabi Sabi" on the other hand, rejects the notion of perfectionism, because, as Buddhism teaches, nothing's perfect, nothing's permanent, and nothing's ever finished. To believe otherwise is to buy into an illusion caused by repeatedly attempting to get A's on your homework.

At the start of this post, I alluded to the notion that emotional granularity is one way to improve how we make decisions. We don't come with an instruction book. Imagine if, during the course of the first year in a career, a person mistakes one sub-type of anger for insecurity. (The mistake is understandable; both can happen when you get feedback about your performance and if you feel insulted along the way.) If the person associates this feeling with insecurity, the logical conclusion for what to do will be different than if they interpret this feeling as one of anger. In the first case, the person may conclude that the entirety of the feedback is worth listening too, in the second they may be more circumspect. In one case, they may change their behavior more than in the other; and what is decision-making but altering your behavior to achieve your goals? For becoming aware of this scenario is impossible without having a fine-grained interpretation of (the different subtypes of) anger. And though this is a small example, it also a metaphor for the advantages of emotional granularity in general. The trick is that to really do it well, one has to get more fine-grained than the words and concepts of the culture one grows up in.


As promised, here is a small listing of interesting links and internet things that have recently come my way, or I've recently talked about in a conversation. I aim for this kind of thing to be a semi-regular occurrence here at the blogging division of corporate headquarters.

Reddit comments on love and relationships

If you ever needed any proof that many of us have something to offer if we learn to how to expressively articulate our own experiences, look no further than the "/r/bestof" subreddit. Here are three of the best best-of'ed reddit comments I've recently come across:

On some purposes of loving, vulnerability as well as the lessons we learn. (Or, to try for a poetical summary: When I was young and had no sense, I built within myself a fence...)


newer longform:

  • This month The Atavist brings us a feature on Humanitarian Clowning. It's a good read; equal parts inspiring, exotic, and mono no aware. (I don't know what it is about British humor human-rights activists, but I've always found them inspiring -- the British comedian Mark Thomas was a hero of mine in high school. Something right must be happening somewhere across the pond.) For a shorter read on the political uses of humor, click here.

older longform that has recently come up in conversation:

  • Harper's knocks it out of the park with this article on the democratic elections annually held inside Peru's most notorious prison.



I'll leave you with this "cultural translation" of Basho's frog haiku, by one Alfred H. Marks:

There once was a curious frog

who sat by a pond on a log

and, to see what resulted,

in the pond catapulted

with a water-noise heard round the bog


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