Introduction to emotions

Have you had ever just taken the time to watch the people around you? If you have then you will have contemplated the fact that everyone has a rich inner emotional world. Everyone is at the centre of their own story, with their own heroes and villains, plot twists, struggles and successes. We all want to live happy lives, so why do we find it so hard sometimes?

One popular theory in psychology is that human beings are not evolved to be happy, but instead are ‘designed’ for survival. If that’s true then it changes the rules of the game a bit. Our job becomes one of making sense of how we can inhabit these minds and bodies that are designed for survival instead of happiness, and to live the best lives that we can. In this chapter we’re going to learn why emotions are important, and think about some of the ways they can interfere with our lives.


The purpose of emotions


Q: Why do we have emotions?

A: Emotions motivate us, they make us want to do things


Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Imagine you woke up one day and didn’t have any emotions. How would you decide what to do that day? How would you know what’s important and what’s not? If you didn’t have any emotions would it feel ‘nice’ to be in a warm, comfortable bed? Would you feel excited about going to work? Or worried about what would happen if you didn’t go? What if you had managed to get up and were crossing the road – would you bother to hurry if a  car was coming towards you? Why bother to do anything at all?

Our emotions help to guide the decisions that we make every minute of our lives. The world around us (and the thoughts in our heads) trigger emotional reactions all the time. Much of what we do is motivated by a desire to change or maintain a feeling-state – to hold on to good feelings or to avoid bad feelings.


Different emotions motivate us to act in different ways


Have you ever had the urge to shout at someone who was being infuriating?  Or the urge to give someone a hug when they were really sad? Have you ever really wanted to take the last piece of cake? All of these urges are driven by our emotions. Emotions make us want to act, and different emotions guide us towards different kinds of actions. We don’t have to act in the way our emotions suggest, but everyone has had the experience of wanting to do something. The image on the next page shows the variety of actions that our emotions can guide us towards.

Joy or happiness can motivate us to join in, take part, share

Fear can motivate us to get away

Sadness can motivate us to withdraw, brood, ruminate

Anger can motivate us to attack, lash out, stand up for ourselves

Guilt can motivate us to repair what we have done

Shame can motivate us to hide away, to keep things secret

Disgust can motivate us to withdraw, keep a distance, get clean

Compassion, empathy, or sympathy can motivate us to offer comfort, be with

Embarrassment or humiliation can motivate us to hide

Confusion can motivate us to check things out (or paralyse us with indecision)

Powerlessness can motivate us to give up

Indifference can motivate us to ignore

Affection can motivate us to give love, get close to