No doubt you’ve experienced a whole spectrum of emotions throughout your life, from joy at the birth of a child, or excitement at the prospect of a new job, or even fear at the sight of a spider!
But have you ever paused to wonder what emotions actually are, and why we have them?
If someone tells you they feel happy, or sad, or angry, you almost certainly know what they mean. But while most of us have an instinctive understanding of emotions, there is no accepted definition amongst psychologists. For some, emotions are a fleeting mental reaction to something that’s happened, while others describe emotions as the perception of a physical change, such as an increase in heart rate, or unexpectedly sweaty palms. Our experience is perhaps somewhere in between.
It seems fair to say that emotions are a state of mind, reflecting some measure of pleasure or displeasure, usually coupled with a physical sensation.
In this article, we explore some of the ideas surrounding the nature of emotions and how they impact our everyday lives.
Three ways of thinking about your emotions
The physical experience of emotion
Probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about emotions is the physical feeling — the butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous or excited, the outpouring of tears when you feel upset, or your heart jumping into your throat when you get a fright.
These physiological responses are controlled by the automatic nervous system, and are particularly alert to negative emotions such as fear, or anger.
While sometimes unpleasant, the physical experience of emotion is actually a useful signal that something about our surroundings needs our immediate attention. Imagine if you didn’t feel the sudden onset of panic at the sight of a bear rushing towards you!
Emotion as a cognitive process
But emotions are not just physical feelings. They are intertwined with thoughts, judgments and attitudes, often prompted by things that happen around us, and our interpretation of those events.
For example, we feel happy, and excited when we are offered a promotion at work, because we believe it will help us meet our goals about career success, or financial stability. We feel sad, or angry when a relationship ends, because we believe we have lost something that we hold important.
Our emotions are therefore the consequence of this process of judging our situation against our beliefs.
Of course, while emotions tend not to occur in a vacuum, it is possible to experience emotions simply as a result of particular thoughts. For example, if you anticipate losing something but haven’t actually lost it, you might still feel sadness. If you believe something bad will happen at some future point, but it hasn’t actually happened, you might still experience anxiety. This suggests that if we can reframe our beliefs and behavior, we might be able to manage our emotions effectively.
Expressing our emotions
We’ve covered the internal aspects of emotion, but what about how we express them?
The way we behave when we feel different emotions is central to our interactions with others, and helps us form social bonds. When we show our friends that we are excited, or nervous about something, and they behave similarly, we feel a stronger sense of connection.
The ability to understand, and read emotions in other people, and empathize with their emotional experiences, is known as emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is essential for building positive social relationships.
There are also cultural norms associated with how we display emotions which help us fit in with our social group. Often these expectations are tied to age, gender, culture or situation. For example, the emotions you are expected to display at a wedding will be quite different to what’s considered acceptable at a funeral. These are known as display-rules.
Understanding our emotions
It’s clear that the complex world of emotions serves an important social function. On an individual level, emotions serve us by helping us learn to repeat behavior that led to positive emotions, and avoid behavior that made us feel bad. Usually this helps us behave in a way that benefits our wider community, and that common emotional language helps strengthen our social relationships.