Emotions: The What, Where, and How
THC Editorial Team March 4, 2021
- What Are Emotions?
- Where Do Emotions Originate?
- The Role of Emotions
- Types of Emotions
- The Power and Impact of Emotions
- Problematic Emotions and the Importance of Emotion Regulation
At first glance, the term emotions seems simple. In fact, many people even conflate it with feelings. But what does the term actually mean, and is it as simple as we tend to think?
Emotions are a complex notion in human biology, psychology, and sociology, and our understandings of emotions have changed over time. Emotions play a central role in human lives and relationships and, for many people, form a pillar of human experience. They can run the gamut between positive and negative, and they ultimately influence—to some extent—most people’s overall health and well-being.1
Emotions also have the potential to affect the decisions we make. As a result, much can be gained by cultivating a better understanding of what emotions are in general and how they shape individual lives in particular.
What Are Emotions?
Scholars and practitioners in psychology and other fields have long debated the definition of emotions, and no scientific consensus on its definition currently exists.2 However, different theorists and members of professional organizations have articulated their own definitions over time and use them as foundations in research on emotions.
For instance, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines emotion as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.”3 In contrast, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines emotion as “conscious mental reaction[s] (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.”4
Although both definitions may seem specific and may somewhat overlap, scholars have questioned the meaning and boundaries of emotions for decades—and arguably even centuries. Although philosophers, religious scholars, and scientists studied the concept of emotions before the 18th century, the term itself was popularized around that time.5 As the years progressed, its influence increased. In 1884, pioneering physiologist, psychologist, and philosopher William James published an article in the journal Mind that explicitly asked his colleagues, “What is an emotion?”6 Since then, debates about the exact contours of emotions have persisted in both popular imagination and among the pages of academic journals.
Where Do Emotions Originate?
Many schools of thought related to the origins of emotions have emerged. Three major theories have become particularly popular over time:7
- Physiological theories suggest that reactions to certain physical responses in the body cause emotions.
- Neurological theories suggest that chemical responses and activities in the brain result in the emotions we feel.
- Cognitive theories suggest that our thoughts and similar mental processes play a critical role in the manifestation of emotions.
Increasingly, scholars across disciplines have suggested that emotions are caused by some combination of all three factors—physiological, neurological, and cognitive—and may even be influenced by other elements such as social interactions or environment. The way that emotions work is so complicated, it is most likely that all three of these theories are valid in their own right, with a combination of causes resulting in emotions.7
The Role of Emotions: Why and How Do Humans Experience Emotions?
In addition to debating the definitions and origins of emotions, researchers have also proposed various theories to explain how and why humans experience emotions and what roles they play in human life.
According to some scholars, emotions generally serve three main functions for humans:8
- Emotions allow people to adapt to their environment. The brain triggers the appropriate chemicals to initiate a response that is designed to help people deal with current circumstances. For example, during a stressful event that triggers your fight-or-flight response, the brain releases dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. In the adaptive function, there is no need to identify feelings as either positive or negative because all emotions serve a purpose—from basic survival to learning how to thrive in your environment.9
- Emotions may enable meaningful social interactions with other people. For example, expressing your love and appreciation for someone may generate stronger, deeper social bonds with that person.
- Emotions can motivate people.10 Strong emotions may prompt people to act. For example, when you experience acute, negative feelings of regret about a past action or decision, you may try to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
In addition to these general ideas on the role of emotions in human lives, there are two major perspectives on why humans experience emotions. They are the Evolutionary psychology perspective and the social constructionism perspective.11
Evolutionary Psychology Perspective
Originating from Darwinism, evolutionary psychologists firmly believe emotions are innate adaptations that served as psychological responses to our ancestors in challenging situations. Emotions have a survival value. For example, fear is believed to exist in order to cope with dangers. In threatening circumstances, psychological mechanisms, such as the emotion of fear, activate so we can assess the situation and act effectively. Guilt also has evolutionary explanations in that it prevents individuals from cheating others. Cheating others can be disadvantageous in the long term, in that an individual may then have less people to rely on and receive aid from. Future reciprocal exchanges can be tarnished if an individual cheats another, and the feeling of guilt can act as prevention for that. The universality of emotions provides additional support for the perspective that emotions are innate.
Social Constructionism Perspective
Social psychologists believe in social constructionism, or the theory that emotions are cognitive appraisals (i.e., an individual’s judgments or understandings of a situation) demonstrated through behaviors. Social psychologists believe that each felt emotion comes from a cognitive appraisal, which in turn dictates a range of actions or behaviors we will enact. They believe emotions do not need to be attached to a bodily reaction, such as a racing heart. Also, some emotions, such as love, have no facial expression or concrete bodily response attached to it. Instead, these emotions are associated with patterns of behaviors.
Types of Emotions
Just as there is no consensus on a definition for emotions, researchers posit a range of theories about the number and types of emotions people experience.
Researcher Paul Ekman proposed those six basic emotions as a result of extensive cross-cultural research conducted on the recognition of emotional facial expressions. He has since expanded that list to include amusement, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride in achievement, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, and shame.13
The greatest consensus in the field appears to surround the original six basic emotions. Some researchers argue that there are more; however, it is up for debate whether other described emotions still fall within the categories of fear, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise. Regardless of the exact number of defined emotions, the message is the same: Ekman believes in the evolutionary theory and sees emotions as biologically innate, meaning that they are universal to all persons and can be visibly understood through facial expressions.11,13
You’ve most likely experienced emotions that are not on this list. Researchers posit that all other emotions are secondary to the primary ones above. Secondary emotions, such as trust, anticipation, kindness, and pity, are those that develop after you have processed the initial thoughts and feelings that arise from a situation.14
The Power and Impact of Emotions
The relationship between an individual’s personality, identity, health, and emotional experiences is very complex. In particular, our behavioral reactions to our emotions pervade all aspects of our lives—from our relationships with friends and family, to our abilities to function in social situations, to our innermost desires, motivations, and goals.
People’s embodied expressions of their emotions can shape the perceptions and attitudes of people around them. In one study, a group of researchers set up five experiments to investigate whether people evaluate emotional expressions in social encounters as a source of information to inform their own reactions. In the study, they conducted interviews with people about specific topics. In some experiments, they asked interviewees to view a series of photographs of people with happy expressions as the interview occurred. In other experiments, they asked interviewees to view a series of photographs of people with angry expressions as the interview occurred. The researchers found that participants who looked at photographs of people with happy expressions when the interview occurred later expressed more positive associations with the interview topic. Conversely, participants who looked at photographs of people with angry expressions later expressed more negative attitudes toward the interview topic.15
Emotions can also affect people’s health outcomes. In particular, they can diminish or enhance overall physical health and mental well-being. For instance, in a study that investigated the underlying biological pathways that link emotions to physical health, researchers found that emotions, both positive and negative, can influence biological processes such as inflammation and metabolic profiles by increasing specific pro-inflammatory cytokines that circulate in our blood.16 In another study on the connection between emotions and physical health, a group of researchers investigated the association between positive emotions and physical health. They found that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health all reinforce one another in a self-sustaining manner. In other words, if you experience positive emotions and social connections, you are more likely to have better physical health.17
People’s lives are affected by emotions in many other ways as well. Some scholars suggest that emotions can even influence people’s long-term intellectual, psychological, and social resources. In what is called the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, scholars suggest that a person’s daily experiences with positive emotions compound over time. In particular, psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson has suggested that experiencing positive emotions enables people to broaden their awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, and try new things.18 For example, if you routinely experience joy, you are more likely to be creative and social—which, in turn, builds your psychological and social capital. In a different study, researchers investigated Fredrickson’s theory and found that positive emotions induced through a program of loving-kindness meditation ultimately increased participants’ mindfulness, sense of purpose, and social support and decreased their illness symptoms.18
Overall, extensive research has shown that emotions can heavily affect our attitudes, behaviors, physical health, mental well-being, and more.19
Problematic Emotions and the Importance of Emotion Regulation
Most people have experienced times in their lives when negative emotions seemed overwhelming. Many of those people develop strategies to cope with emotional overload in such situations. Sometimes, their coping strategies are very effective. Other times, people continue to struggle and may even develop unhealthy responses that make situations worse.
One key to developing healthy and resilient approaches to processing emotions—and avoiding maladaptive behavior patterns—is called emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions.20 Healthy emotion regulation involves generating ways to decrease the effects of negative emotions in your life while increasing the benefits of positive ones. Many psychologists consider it a crucial skill to learn because it can enhance people’s well-being, interpersonal skills, personal relationships, job performance, family life, and even overall health. Two examples of emotion regulation strategies are cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression.
In cognitive reappraisal, an individual actively changes the way they think about an emotion-eliciting event in order to help modify the event’s emotional impact. By reframing their state of mind through cognitive reappraisal, people may experience decreased negative emotions when they think about the event. Research has shown that this strategy increases positive emotions and well-being and encourages healthier patterns of affect and social functioning.21
In expressive suppression, an individual changes the way they respond behaviorally to an event that induces emotions, which modifies their overall emotional expression. Research has shown that expressive suppression may have a negative impact on a person by decreasing the experience of a positive emotion. Frequent use of behavioral suppression leads to greater levels of negative emotional experiences.22,23
Other healthy emotion regulation practices include sharing, talking, or writing about your emotional experiences with others. James Pennebaker, a distinguished psychologist, has conducted research for decades regarding the deep value of expressing emotions through writing. In a book published in 2016, Pennebaker and Smyth explain how taking a few minutes to write down your emotions, personal events, or past or ongoing issues improves your well-being, relationships, and immune system and decreases stress. Simply talking about your emotional experiences to friends or in therapy sessions also shows significant improvements in various areas.23
In a research review conducted in 2009, Jeffery Greeson examined 52 pieces of empirical and theoretical research on mindfulness. Overall, he found that basic and clinical research showed that practicing mindfulness was associated with more positive states of mind, a better quality of life, and less emotional distress. Mindfulness appears to have the power to influence the brain, stress hormones, the immune system, and behaviors affecting our health, such as eating, sleeping, and substance use. Thus, being more mindful through paying more attention and practicing greater acceptance has a multitude of impacts.
Finally, targeted psychotherapy with an experienced practitioner is one of the best options for addressing sensitive emotional patterns or reactions. A skilled professional can help you identify problematic issues and learn how to cope with your responses.
If you are currently experiencing difficult emotions that negatively affect your life, finding a good counselor or psychotherapist is a great place to start. In the meantime, try some of the following strategies to immediately mitigate problematic emotions and emotional responses: eat healthy foods, exercise, engage in activities you enjoy, and practice positive self-talk.