What Are Emotions, Anyway?

Back in the days of Sigmund Freud, the world was powered by steam. Everything was pressure, force, heat, release of pressure, explosive pressure. Pressure, pressure, pressure…

Because we tend to understand ourselves in relation to the world we live in, Freud and his students created explanations for emotions, drives and instincts in terms of build-up and release, just like the steam engines of their time. This formed the basis of the charge/discharge theories of emotional release that were influential in psychotherapy and pop psychology in the 1960s and ‘70s, and into the ‘80s.

Fortunately for us, we aren’t steam engines. We’re also not computers, though in more recent decades, people have talked about our thought processes as though they could be explained fully by our brains’ complex computational abilities: programming, software, hardware, hardwiring… The best that such explanations do is give us the illusion that we understand ourselves through an analogy.

Analogies are fine as far as they go, but the computer analogy doesn’t do justice to the complexity of our creative, living systems. And the steam engine analogy doesn’t do justice to our emotions.

So just what are emotions, anyway?

It turns out that the “motion” part of emotion is fairly accurate. Emotions relate to movement toward action. The emotion of anger is part of the perceived need to move to stop an intrusion. The emotion of fear is part of the perceived need to avoid a threat or danger. The emotion of sadness is part of the perceived need to comfort loss.

Most of us think of some emotions – like love, joy, elevation and serenity – as more positive, and others – like fear, anger, pain, sadness or rage – as more negative. And there is indeed a difference in how these emotions function and how they feel.

Think of the last time you were angry. It’s likely that, along with a kind of revved-up feeling of emotion, you felt tension in your limbs, your jaw and maybe your chest.

Think of the last time you felt afraid. Along with the sensations of alertness in your eyes, quickened breath and overall vigilance, you probably felt your breath constricted, your vision narrowed to exclude most everything but the threat, and maybe a constriction in your gut.

Negative emotions often involve two competing impulses: one that propels action and the other that inhibits it. With anger, there may be an impulse to strike out and, at the same time, a corresponding impulse to hold back that action. With fear, there is often an impulse to get away, with a corresponding impulse to freeze.

With depression, interestingly, the experience is of a chronically interrupted drive toward action. I say “interestingly” because, years after Nina Bull’s original research identified these internal sensory impulses, Martin Seligman discovered – through his experiments of learned helplessness and his later work with learned optimism – that depression is very often a symptom of feeling helpless.

Now, think of when you last felt joy. How did you sense that in your body? You may have felt your breath deepen, your eyes soften and a kind of pleasurable, energetic glow throughout your torso and limbs.

What about love? Maybe an expansive sensation in your chest, an opening sensation in your torso and limbs, and a heightened contactfulness in your eyes.

But where’s the contraction, as with anger or fear? It’s likely that with these positive emotions, you don’t feel any contraction or restriction.

In contrast to negative emotions, the more positive ones don’t involve inhibition. Joy is an expansive impulse and corresponding physical sensation. Love is an opening to connection. Elevation is a movement toward greater energy and possibility.

It’s the absence of that inhibition or constriction that’s part of what feels so good. Indeed, when we’re able to successfully confront and diffuse an aggressor of some sort, that often feels good, too. The same goes for successfully escaping danger. As Winston Churchill famously said, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result.”

That good feeling comes from action that’s successfully executed – even in the case of successfully dodging a bullet. This is part of the joy and passion of sports. When a gymnast nails a routine, when teammates expertly blend their skills or when a shooter scores a goal, the exhilaration comes from that masterfully executed intensity of action.

Conversely, when we worry over future imagined dread or ruminate over past painful events, we’re stuck in a dimension where effective action does not exist.

When we worry, it’s almost always when we focus on things over which we have no control. We worry over politics, about other people’s experiences or judgment of us, or about the portion of our success that’s dependent on luck, other people or events. When was the last time you worried about doing something you do well? When we do the things we’re good at, we don’t generally worry about them; we just do them.

When we ruminate, we’re focusing our attention on past events, old pain or regrets. But the past is not a place that’s accessible to us. There is no time machine that allows us to go back and change what happened. So all we can do is feel the action that we wish we would’ve taken, without ever being able to take it. That puts us in that chronically interrupted drive toward action: the state of learned helplessness that fuels depression.

We commonly spend way too much time over the course of our lives having imaginary arguments with people who angered or threatened us: forming the brilliant and dramatically satisfying monologues that would put them in their place once and for all. Every moment that we spend doing this is wasted. Every moment we spend doing this serves to intensify the feelings of stagnant, futile, motionless emotion.

How much time have you spent lecturing a wrongdoer, grumbling to yourself about a frustrating interaction or reliving past pains?

Here’s a challenge to you: When you find yourself feeling a positive emotion, allow yourself to sense the full expansiveness in your body, and the glow of love, joy, elevation and serenity. If you notice any tension against that expansiveness, see if you can let it go a bit.

When you find yourself feeling one of the negative emotions, allow yourself to sense how that feels physically. Notice the combination of a draw toward action and an inhibition of that action. Then see if there’s a way you can find to take action that’s effective (and legal and civilized). It may be that you need to say something to someone or you need to remove yourself from a dangerous situation.

Find the action that the emotion is reflecting, and see if you can find the dance between emotion and conscious expression that will improve the situation you’re in.

That’s what our emotions can do for us if we pay attention to them… and know what they’re for.

P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. Alexander Green has this to say about the course: “I’ve learned so much from Dr. Joel Wade. And with his new Master’s Course, you, too, can learn the skills to feel like you are truly flourishing. Highly recommended.” Due to popular demand, I’m continuing to offer this to Oxford Club Members at a special, one-time, discounted rate. Just enter promo code MH1PROMO.


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About the Author

Joel Wade
Author of Mastering Happiness

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website, www.drjoelwade.com.

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