How are you feeling today? And don’t give me a stock British response. I want to know how you’re really feeling. What the reading on your colour-coded emotional thermometer was from the moment you woke up.
Were you dispirited, perhaps, by the grey sky when you drew the curtains? Frustrated by the piles of dishes in the sink and angered by the Christmas tree still standing there – mirroring your own post-festive droop – despite countless promises from your other half that it was to be dropped off at the nearest recycling point?
If you’re unable to answer my simple question, you may be in need of “emotional literacy” classes – the kind Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is being given at the Montecito nursery where he is also being taught “kindness” and “mindfulness”. These classes are increasingly common in California schools, where emotional fluency is considered as vital to a child’s development as spelling – and are on the rise over here. Indeed, “feelings thermometers” are not only an actual thing but are also being touted as “the ultimate counselling tool” for kids.
Because it’s not enough to recognise feelings as and when they occur. Oh no. It’s about learning to express them and discuss any infinitesimally subtle variations with other two-year-olds who, by the way, may be feeling all sorts of deep-seated emotions too, ranging from “Musical tractor MINE!” to “I NO WANT mushy carrots!”
In fact, there’s a whole world of feelings out there just waiting to be brought out into the open. And am I alone in finding the prospect of a future generation of hyper emotionally literate humans terrifying?
Being “in touch with your emotions” is one thing. Being hijacked by them 24/7 is quite another. We know this thanks to the millennials and Gen-Zers who have fetishised emotion to the point that they speak in therapese, Kleenex box at the ready and enjoy nothing more than routinely diagnosing both themselves and one another with medical initialisms (“He’s totally ADHD/ADD/OCD”).
Their casual dating banter includes terms such as “a breakdown of boundaries”, “red flags” and “denying my lived experience”. They worry about the state of their mental health constantly, and of course the world of “triggering” forces that is liable to propel them from a happy-faced-emoji state to one with a single fat blue tear at any time. And, of course, they scoff at their emotionally dyslexic elders: the “keep calm and soldier on” cretins who wouldn’t be able to pin-point an emotion if it strangled them.
Now, I’m all for feelings. I’ve had a few myself over the years. But has zooming in on those feelings and luxuriating in them made Generations Y and Z any happier? It doesn’t appear so. When I interviewed the psychotherapist Stella O’Malley for her 2019 book Fragile: Why We Feel More Anxious, Stressed and Overwhelmed Than Ever, she was adamant that the kick-back against the “repressed” mentality of our forefathers – who lived by the “you’ll feel better in the morning” mantra – has opened the floodgates to a slew of unhelpfully emotive language and encouraged youngsters to give every fleeting feeling validity. “Remember that the emotional you isn’t you at your most nuanced,” she warned. And yet it’s that side of you that social media targets, whipping up those feelings until they can seem impossible to bear. “Because your emotional brain is at once the loudest, most definitive and stupidest part of the brain. So you can’t be led by emotions entirely.”
OK. But has fetishising feelings at least made us more empathetic (one of the key aims of “emotional literacy” schooling), more tolerant and better able to manage emotions (two more)? Again, all evidence points to the contrary. When I spoke to Dennis Hayes, the founder of Academics For Academic Freedom, about the Durham University walkout that happened last month after a furious mob of students claimed to have been “triggered” into a state of “pain” by the presence of journalist Rod Liddle at an event, he explained that there had been a shift over the past 50 years from students claiming political and moral “offence” – to emotional “offence”.
Beyond the self-absorption and intolerance responsible for cancel culture, there’s a further contradiction that I can’t get my head around. Given the whole premise of “emotional literacy” is not being afraid of feelings and allowing yourself to feel fear, anger, sadness and the rest, what makes “offence” any different? By their own therapeutic rationale, shouldn’t they let that offence wash over them – right down to the tips of their toes? Then they could pat themselves down, check that all four limbs are indeed still there, rejoice in the knowledge that adversity doesn’t kill you, and revel in a joyous new feeling: strength.