Book Review: The Science of Feelings by Eugene Tee

“What is your biggest takeaway from this book?” she asked.

I met up with a friend who just came back to campus to catch up, when I found myself telling her about this book I’ve been reading (and loving) recently: The Science of Feelings by Eugene Tee. I took the copy out of my bag and showed it to her. Her first question was unexpected, but insightful nonetheless. 

I was looking for something when I started reading, but I didn’t know what exactly. But I found it. 

In this article, I will be reviewing this book by commenting on the brilliant writing, structuring and content, as well as sharing how it has impacted my personal life.

At the time, I was only halfway (5 chapters) in, but this book left its mark on my life before I could leave mine on its every page. It was a takeaway that, like the book itself, I will treasure my entire life, especially as I am growing into adulthood and wanting to heal. 

“You can feel guilty without needing to shame yourself for your mistakes”, I replied, the weight of my weary eyes feeling lighter. I said it with a heavy sigh, but it was only giving way to the soft smile that shyly peaked through the curtains of shame. Don’t be too hard on her. Smile is new here, she’s still trying to get used to it. 

Reading the Emotions Lexicon in Chapter 3 and 4, which explains one emotion for each alphabet, was when I realised this important lesson.

The Emotions Lexicon was something I never knew I needed, but always wanted. I always questioned myself: how do I know what I’m feeling? I feel something, but I can’t name it. What is anger supposed to feel like? If there were some indicators or some differentiation between its “close cousins” or “variants” or some idea of when we would feel those emotions, I could tell you if I was angry or not. What if I told you I hated you instead when I was just angry? 

It helps that the explanations of each emotion are concise yet clear, and there are references to current global issues and pop culture sensations such as Kanye West, which helped me contextualise certain explanations and understand them better through the author’s addition of  touches of humour and relatability. 

It also helps that the author gives examples of situations where certain emotions can arise, as well as explaining how emotions can manifest externally (for example, disgust can sound like “ew” or “yuck”). It can help readers to distinguish emotions by clearly elucidating what the subtle differences are between verbal and situational cues.

This book doesn’t only touch upon basic emotions like sadness, anger or happiness. It also explains “Xenophobia”, “Zeal”, “Yearning”, and some emotions I have never heard of. Also, it never occurred to me that inspiration is a feeling. “Feeling inspired”. It was right under my nose! 

I love the etymology the author provides in his explanations, as well as the scientific research backboning this book. Despite that, throughout the entire book, the language is never off-putting jargon. If certain scientific terminologies are used, the author ensures that it is then explained in simple English. 

Sometimes though, you can find non-English words in this book.  I find it interesting how some languages have words to describe certain emotions which the English language does not possess. There is actually a table for them in Chapter 2. This helps us understand emotions through different languages and cultures. It’s not all science!

Admittedly, that is my favourite part. This book is a perfect mix of science that acknowledges complexities of the world and emotions, with multiple perspectives which aren’t scientific in nature, such as from historical, economic, cultural and linguistic perspectives. It was like reading a story and each chapter was the foundation for the next, until eventually one can naturally understand the larger considerations of this book, which is: can AI replace humans? 

Despite the story-like feel, one need not be confused as to what has been explained in each chapter, as there is a box for Key Takeaways listed at the end of every chapter which summarises key points. Each chapter’s content is also prefaced in the introductory paragraphs, so the reading flow stays relatively smooth and easy. 

For me, reading this book will help me analyse literary texts better as I can now better identify emotions and have learned how emotions drive not just individual but collective action. It can even help me write better, as I have got a glimpse of how emotions are conveyed, besides being introduced to a whole different side of the world in Chapter 9, where 6 principles of the 6 happiest countries in the world are shared with one practical, one-line advice as a header for each paragraph. 

Speaking of being happy, I have lived with shame hunching my back all these years as it was inflicted within me growing up; I have struggled with criticism, rejection, perfectionism, being different, blamed, and scolded. Indeed, shame blocks the sunlight of happiness from entering the windows of the heart.

I am, however, especially ashamed of mistakes I make in interpersonal relationships. A recent realisation nudged me into serious reflection and reevaluation of myself. 

I was always perceived as “sweet”, “nice”, “caring”, “empathetic” and “kind” by others and that was how I wanted to be. However, it wasn’t until I started experiencing a romantic relationship for the first time that I realised while learning the ropes, that I was holding shears. 

Of fervour and fairytales, or fantasies and fallacies, I found myself holding him to an expectation, of an ideal. Perhaps the expectation was not my fault, but my judgemental and controlling tendencies that reared its ugly head in the slip of a mask shocked me. It took me by surprise at that moment to realise how toxic I was. 

Or, after rethinking: I am a good person, with toxic traits. 

Seconds after making the mistake, I sat there in shock as my conscience started questioning me. “Aren’t I supposed to accept him and his flaws? It isn’t even a character flaw. He’s struggling with it.”

To me, holding myself accountable for my mistakes never meant taking responsibility. It meant being blamed. Hiding from my own mistakes in the past, I drizzled myself with the nectar of blaming others and shaming myself, with thoughts like “I’m a terrible person” because I was so ashamed, and so afraid of admitting that I am not all good, and that I have qualities that need to be improved on. If I coated it enough with sugar I wouldn’t have to taste that bitterness.

This is why I read The Science of Feelings. I hoped this book would help me in some way, and it did. I decided at that moment that this person was too valuable to lose, therefore I want to and have to change. 

I should be forgiving. I should be understanding. I shouldn’t be judgemental. I could have said all the shoulds and shouldn’ts. But after being surrounded by a forgiving support system of people who stay by my side while I admit my faults, slowly, I am learning with every mistake, what it means to say: “It’s okay to make mistakes”. 

But what do I do after knowing that? 

Somehow, throughout my life, I have never grasped what a mistake is. Whether it be judging somebody, upsetting somebody, forgetting my responsibilities or just going MIA on text, I never saw them as mistakes I could apologise for. They were just labelled “bad”— “I did a bad job, I did something bad, I’m bad at talking to people”…

Now, though, I am learning slowly that taking accountability and responsibility is enough. Apologising and changing our behaviour; “trying our best”, “still learning”, “I’m sorry”. We slip up sometimes even after wanting to change. That’s okay. I can’t be good all the time either. My words and actions could hurt people intentionally or not. Apologising is important, and enough. 

This reminds me that the last few chapters of The Science of Feeling talks about the declining empathy in humans throughout the years. I just realised that in accepting someone’s apology for making a genuine mistake, it would not do for me to stay stuck in anger when they are trying to fix the situation. It takes two to tango, or slow dance. However you’d like it to be. They are trying their best to be better, and I realise now that it takes a person so much courage to try again. The least I can do is to listen and empathise with them, acknowledging how scary it can be for them too.

Reading this book has enlightened me and inspired me to research on related topics, besides aiding in my self-reflection. I am marvelled by this book, especially as it was such a delightful read. The flow is logical and engaging. The tone is laidback and non-assertive, it feels like learning without the academic pressures. 

After being on a ‘reading block’, this book really is an easy, valuable and igniting read for me. It inspired me to be curious and was written in a way that allowed me to do so. As explained in the book, the combination of complexity of this topic of emotions, as well as interpretability of the topic, is what allows curiosity to be ignited. 

The Science of Feelings by Eugene Tee is a worthwhile read and you can check it out here. Its price is also affordable for the knowledge it contains. It is an easy read, but a profound one. A lifelong book to keep. 

By: Amirah Farzana

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