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E is for Emotions

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

Emotions are like the weather – they’re always present and constantly changing. They continually ebb and flow, from mild to intense, pleasant to unpleasant, predictable to utterly unexpected”. Russ Harris (p95 The Happiness Trap)

What are emotions?

"Never make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion."


Emotions are defined as physiological responses or reactions that our body generates due to changes that happen in ourselves as well as in our surroundings. They are linked to feelings as opposed to thoughts and are triggered by the situation that you are in or the people you are with.

The changes we experience are likely to be influenced by our past experiences, and can help us to choose the appropriate response based on the stimulus However, most people would also agree that our emotions are also capable of clouding our judgement, thus affecting our ability to make rational decisions. That is not to say that emotions are not important in decision making and we need to suppress them, rather we need to be aware of them then make conscious decisions as to whether they are helpful or not.

Emotions can get in the way or get you on the way.” Mavis Mazhura

Antonio Damasio, grew up with the notion that, “Sound decisions came from a cool head, that emotions and reason did not mix any more than oil and water,” but with the development of new neuro-imaging techniques his ideas changed and he went on to demonstrate that emotions are actually crucial to making “correct” decisions. In his book ‘Descartes’ Error (Emotion, Reason and The Human Brain) he starts by saying,

I began writing this book to propose that reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were, that emotions and feelings may not be intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse and for better” (See link below for complete book)

Our emotions have a direct impact on our lives so understanding emotions can help us navigate life more consistently and effectively. Our decisions are often based on our emotional states so it is important to be able to step back and evaluate them. We can also actively choose activities or hobbies that are uplifting to increase our positive emotional experiences. (Heliotropic effect i.e. humans seek the positive like plants seek sunlight). The positive emotions we subsequently experience are nutrients for growth and resilience.

The days that make us happy make us wise” John Masefield.

When we invest in ‘positive’ emotions in a repeated way, it changes who we are.

When awareness is brought to an emotion, power is brought to your life.”

Tara Meyer Robson

Our emotions cause us to respond in different ways physiologically. This is described as an “action tendency” e.g. we can get a lump in the throat or butterflies in our stomach, have a desire to laugh, cry, hide etc The important thing to remember is that our responses are a tendency and are not fixed in tablets of stone i.e. we can learn to be true to our reality but then consciously change our responses. The ability to harness the power that emotions have --to understand and manage those emotions, so that one can make decisions that are in harmony with our core values and principles is known as emotional intelligence.

There are many ways of classifying emotions but the most simple is to distinguish between primary emotions (those that appear from birth and in all cultures) and secondary emotions (a combination of the previous ones, which evolve with cognitive development and experiences of culture and learning).

Your emotions are meant to fluctuate, just like your blood pressure is meant to fluctuate. It’s a system that is supposed to move back and forth, between happy and unhappy. That’s how the system guides you through the world.”

Daniel Gilbert

We need to experience both ends of the spectrum, ‘positive’ emotions to flourish and ‘negative’ to keep us grounded in reality.

“Life is like a piano; the white keys represent happiness and the black show sadness. But as you go through life's journey, remember that the black keys also create music.” Ehssan

It is important to be aware of the difference between emotions, feelings and moods when trying to interpret emotional responses.

What is the difference between emotions and feelings?

‘Emotions’ are innate neuro-physiological reactions produced by external or internal stimulus (i.e. emotions produce physical changes).

"Feelings are something you have; not something you are." Shannon L. Alder

‘Feelings’ are a subjective expression and evolve from specific emotions (i.e. feelings are based upon our thoughts).

“Your feelings are valid and real. Do not let anybody denounce them just because they do not feel the same way. These feelings do not make you weak, or clingy, or overly emotional. They make you strong, brave, and beautiful. You are not merely made of stardust; you are the comet streaking through the sky on the way to do good and bright things.”

Courtney Peppernell

Both emotions and feelings produce “somatic markers” which influence our decision making: e.g. feelings are associated with emotions, e.g. rapid heartbeat with anxiety or the feeling of nausea with disgust. These responses serve as warnings to prevent negative emotions and experiences or as encouragement to pursue more opportunities that are likely to generate positive emotions and experiences.

Somatic markers work in conjunction with our previous learning and experience, by enabling us to rationally sift the number of options available, predict the positive or negative results associated with a decision and increase the efficacy of the final result.

What is the difference between emotions and moods?

The terms ‘emotions’ and ‘moods’ are often used interchangeably, but an emotion is normally intense and short-lived and is likely to have a definite, identifiable cause, whereas a mood, is usually milder than an emotion, but longer-lasting and it is not always obvious why we feel in a certain mood. A mood refers to the general tone of an emotion across a period of time.

A “feeling” refers to a discrete episode of emotion with distinct, recognizable characteristics. Thus a bad mood is like an overcast day, but a feeling of anger or anxiety is like thunder or a shower of rain.” Russ Harris (The Happiness Trap p95)

There are three phases in the creation of an emotion.

  1. First an emotion is triggered by a significant event.

  2. The brain then evaluates this experience and prepares for action. If the brain judges the event as harmful, the “fight or flight” response is triggered but if the brain judges the event as potentially helpful, it then gets ready to approach and explore it.

  3. In the third phase, whilst our body gets prepares for action, we experience a variety of sensations and impulses and our mind starts attaching meaning to those changes.

An emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response and a behavioural or expressive response.”

Discovering Psychology by Don Hockenbury and Sandra E. Hockenbury

Classifying emotions

Throughout time, researchers have tried to identify and classify the different types of emotions. These classifications continue to change and develop over time.

Aristotle (4th century BC) described in his ‘List of Emotion’ 14 distinct core emotional expressions in humans: anger, calm, confidence, contempt, emulation, enmity, envy, fear, friendship, indignation, kindness, pity, shame and shamelessness.

Charles Darwin (187- Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals) thought that basic emotions were innate, evolved, and had a functional adaptive purpose. His list was more limited than that of Aristotle including fear, anger, sadness, happiness, and love.

100 years later, Paul Eckman (1972) suggested that there were six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness

In the 1980s, Robert Plutchik introduced the classification system known as the ‘wheel of emotions’ to describe how emotions were related. He demonstrated how different emotions can be combined or mixed together, like an artist mixes the primary colours on a palette to create other colours. Plutchik suggested that there were 8 primary ‘bipolar emotions’: joy versus sadness; anger versus fear; trust versus disgust; and surprise versus anticipation. These eight basic, primary emotional colours he said overlapped and could be combined to form secondary and complementary emotional "colours." E.g. anticipation + joy = optimism,

The criticism of this model is that secondary and complementary emotions can often vary by culture or society and critics say that to be considered foundational, it has to be universally experienced in all cultures

The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) refers to a set of facial muscle movements that correspond to a displayed emotion. It was originally created by Carl-Herman Hjortsjö in 1970 with 23 facial motion units but was then developed further by Paul Ekman, and Wallace Friesen to address the criticisms of Plutchik’s model. The FACS (as we know it today) was initially published in 1978, but then comprehensively updated in 2002. It basically measures and evaluates the movements of facial muscles, the eyes and the head and assigns them to a specific emotion.

In 1999, Paul Eckman expanded his list to include a number of other basic emotions, including amusement, contempt, embarrassment, excitement, pride, shame and satisfaction.

More recently, a research team at the University of Glasgow (2014) continued with Paul Ekman’s work aiming to identify emotions based on facial expressions irrespective of socio-cultural influences. They found that certain emotions e.g. fear and surprise, disgust and anger or excitement and shock engaged the same facial muscles. Based on their findings, they surmised that the list of core emotions could be pared down to just four: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. They argued that other more subtle and complex emotional expressions are mainly evolved through social and cultural influences of time.

On the face of this it looks as if there is a ration of 1:3 ‘positive’ to ‘negative’ emotions (so no wonder a lot of people are miserable!) but we must remember that emotions are neutral and they only become ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ by what we attach to them.

Having established that there are a number of basic universal emotions that are experienced by people all over the world regardless of background or culture researchers agree that the way we experience emotions is subjective and we don’t experience ‘pure’ emotions, they are usually a mix of a variety of feelings e.g. we can be excited but nervous at the same time.

Some emotional theories:

The major theories about emotion can be grouped under the following categories: physiological (which suggest that responses within the body are responsible for emotions), neurological (which argues activity within the brain leads to emotional responses) and cognitive (which proposes the idea that thoughts and other mental activity play an essential role in forming emotions.)

Charles Darwin developed an evolutionary theory of emotion i.e. our emotions exist because they serve an adaptive role motivating people to respond quickly to their environment which in turn helps improve chances of success and survival.

The William James- Carl Lange theory of emotion suggests that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events. This theory suggests that seeing an external stimulus leads to a physiological reaction and your emotional reaction is dependent upon how you interpret those physical reactions.

Walter Cannon and Philip Bard’s theory differs to the James-Lange theory and suggests that the physical and psychological experience of emotion happen at the same time and that one does not cause the other i.e. we can feel emotions and experience physiological reactions simultaneously

The Stanley Schachter-Jerome Singer theory (Also known as the two-factor theory of emotion) suggests that the physiological arousal occurs first, and then the individual must identify the reason for this arousal to experience and label it as an emotion. i.e. A stimulus leads to a physiological response, the response is then interpreted cognitively and labelled which produces an emotion.

Richard Lazarus was a pioneer in cognitive appraisal theories of emotion. This theory is often referred to as the Lazarus theory of emotion. It states that a sequence of events first involves a stimulus, followed by thought, which then leads to the simultaneous experience of a physiological response and the emotion.

There is also a facial-feedback theory of emotions (Davis, Senghas aand Ochsner) that suggests that facial expressions are connected to experiencing emotions. The theory suggests that emotions are directly tied to changes in facial muscles so people who consciously smile will feel better than if they frown or wear a more neutral facial expression. This work is carrying on from the discovery by Charles Darwin and William James that rather than simply being a consequence of the emotion, physiological responses often had a direct impact on emotion

Everyone experiences a gamut of emotions. As we interact with others, we spend an important percentage of time interpreting the emotional expressions of the people around us. This ability to accurately understand expressions and body language is described as emotional Intelligence (IE) and will be the subject of a further post.

People's emotions are rarely put into words, far more often they are expressed through other cues. The key to intuiting another's feelings is in the ability to read nonverbal channels , tone of voice , gesture , facial expression and the likeDaniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

Do you allow yourself to experience the full gamut of emotions available to you or do you seek to repress or avoid certain emotions like avoiding the black keys on a piano?

What has the biggest influence on your emotions? Have you any control over the triggers?

How do your emotions impact on your body/state of mind?

What practical steps can you put in place to manage your emotions?

What steps do you take to ‘de-fuse’ your emotions?

If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started:

Davis JI, Senghas A, Ochsner KN. How does facial feedback modulate emotional experience?. J Res Pers. 2009;43(5):822-829. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2009.06.005

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“Your feelings are valid and real. Do not let anybody denounce them just because they do not feel the same way. These feelings do not make you weak, or clingy, or overly emotional. They make you strong, brave, and beautiful. You are not merely made of stardust; you are the comet streaking through the sky on the way to do good and bright things.”

― Courtney Peppernell


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