This is quite possibly one of the most perplexing questions you could ever ask anyone. When you ask people what their emotions are for they often say they have no idea. This seems quite bizarre given the fact that we all feel, you would think we would have a handle on what they’re for by now. Yet we choke up with tears and we stamp our feet with rage. Often we literally cannot stop laughing or we fall apart in despair. These seemingly mixed up sensations of feeling cause us some of the greatest joys and some of the worst lows we can ever experience. So just what are emotions for and what are they telling us?
Looking back at our ancestors, they actually had a pretty good reason for having emotions; they kept them alive. If they were fearful they ran. If they were challenged they reacted with anger. If they were happy they knew they were safe, able to relax and conserve energy. Revulsion stopped them from eating the spoiled meat or poisonous plants. Surprise enabled them to engage with new experiences, hastening development. Sadness told them they had lost something important, like others or shelter; things important for survival. So why do we need them now?
In short, emotions tell us where we are in relation to what we need and value and give us pretty comprehensive data about it. However, unlike reason they can sometimes feel confusing. When you ask someone what is the purpose of reason they may well say, “Well, that’s easy, reason enables us to tell the difference between right and wrong, we look at the facts, we evaluate and we choose the best solution based on evidence and determinable outcomes”, It’s pretty black and white; a yes or a no conclusion. Emotions just don’t work like that, they don’t have an immediately recognisable and comparable value, they just are…, Or are they? When you ask yourself the question what is the best way to determine if something is good for me or not, the answer will invariably be how I feel about the situation. So why do we prefer to rely on our emotions rather than our reasoning most of the time?
Perhaps it is because emotions give us such detailed information. It is thought that happiness, surprise, fear and sadness, disgust and anger are the six basic emotions, all other emotions are variations of intensity of these six. For example, anger can go from mild irritation to murderous rage. In sadness we can experience feelings of disappointment that go from general dissatisfaction to suicidal despair. In fear there is caution, and in certain situations pure paralysing terror. Each varying emotion is like a marker on a temperature gauge. Our emotions tell us where we are in relation to how much we can tolerate or endure and how close we are to what we need or value. If we feel slightly irritated rather than enraged, it means we haven’t quite reached our limit yet, we can cope, for now. If we feel contented we know we’re alright for the time being. If we’re joyful we know we have arrived at exactly where we want to be.
It doesn’t take long to decide if something is bad for us if we feel furious about it or to determine if something is good for us when we feel a warm glow of contentment and joy. The current trend in Mindfulness practice is focused very heavily on teaching us to learn to trust our feelings, to be present and aware both mentally and physically. Emotions act as an experiential guide to where we are in terms of safety and satisfaction.
Every single memory we have is coupled with an emotional response. Imagine that first kiss without the accompanying glow. The feeling of achievement when you passed your driving test, got that great job or won that prize, or the accompanying despair when you lost someone you loved. Feelings are and can be intensely powerful, and they don’t just tell us where we are, they also tell others.
Emotions are great communicators and utilise not just our verbal, but our physical expressions as well. It’s not hard to tell if the general consensus of opinion is good when you’ve just scored a penalty and fifteen thousand people roar in appreciation. The crowd jumps to their feet and throws their arms into the air in a cacophony of hoots and whistles. It’s not difficult to tell when someone is happy or sad when they smile or they cry. We know exactly what to do when we see someone seething with rage; we get the hell out of the way!
Emotions are essential for survival. A baby can’t reason with us, but it can cry out when it can’t find its mother or it hears a loud bang, and we respond immediately because we identify. We understand how the baby feels. When we feel happy, we smile. When we feel anxious, we move to high alert. When we feel lonely, we look for company. When we feel dissatisfied, we readjust and change direction.
Emotions are our navigation system, natures compass. Without them, we would be adrift in a sea of confusion. So whether we understand them or not, we need them. Emotions punctuate our lives, they bolster our memories and allow us the freedom to experience. They are the price we pay for loss and the gift we receive for being alive.
Image © MarLeah Joy