Understanding Emotions

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Odds are that you didn’t suddenly wake up one morning and decide that life sucks or that you are a failure. For most people, it is an accumulation of events or situations that trigger feelings of fear, helplessness, and inadequacy. Negative motions are generally more powerful motivators than their positive counterparts, probably because failing to respond to a negative event can kill or harm us while responding to a positive emotion just makes us feel a little better. We remember events which trigger negative emotions considerably longer than those where we feel positively. For example, athletes often forget details of a win, but can recount every play of a loss decades later. Students often recall moments of embarrassment while overlooking all of the accolades and good grades of their school years. In other words, we tend to fixate on failure or what we perceive to be failure, turning the details over and over in our minds, often exaggerating or even adding false data to our memories, thus creating a recurring cycle of negative emotions and self-criticism.

Power of Negative Emotions

Strict verdict. Furious young man in shirt and tie touching his temple with finger gun and keeping eyes closed while sitting at his working placePhilosophy professor Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeev, a former President of the University of Haifa, points out that negative emotions affect us differently than positive emotions because

  • 1. You need a greater variety of responses for a negative emotion in order to “cope” with the potential harm that might result; few people need to learn how to cope with positive feelings,
  • 2. There are more ways in which a situation can be unpleasant than pleasant,
  • 3. There are more ways to ruin something than build it,
  • 4. Negative emotions arise when a goal is blocked while positive emotions usually appear when you reach a goal, and
  • 5. Negative emotions require more cognitive response than positive emotions – you have to use your brain more to deal with or overcome the feelings.

Dr. Ben-Zeev points out from an evolutionary sense that a person governed by seeking pleasure more than avoidance of pain is unlikely to survive.
Research findings suggest that people who are depressed are more realistic about their situation than those who are optimistic and that those who are perceptive are more likely to pessimistic and depressed because they have a more accurate picture of life and its troubles. However, it is also true that happy and optimistic people are better able to cope with their environment.
Nico Frijda, a Psychology Professor at Amsterdam University, in his 2006 book “The Laws of Emotion” theorized that pleasure is always contingent upon change and disappears with continuous satisfaction where pain persists under adverse conditions. Frida believes that emotions exist to signal situations in the world that require a response – like the sudden appearance of a tiger – while positive circumstances do not need a specific response.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that, while most negative emotions are more powerful than their positive opposites, there is one exception: Love. It is one of the most influential and noticeable emotions that are present in every day life and is the root of such emotions as empathy, compassion, sacrifice, duty, and honor. Unfortunately, when you’re in the depths of sorrow and self-pity, it is hard to recall feelings of love unless you make a conscious effort.

Emotions Induce Change

In fact, making changes is difficult in almost every instance. We are evolutionary disposed to prefer the status quo where dangers are known and we can go through most of the day without thinking, operating on automatic pilot. It takes effort to inculcate change, the greater the change, the more effort required. Ironically, the worse you feel, the more likely you are to take action.
Emotions are powerful motivators, much more so than pure logic. The most compelling impetus for change is when we combine the energy associated with negative emotions (the push) with the attraction of positive emotions like love (the pull). Some psychologists have defined happiness as the absence of negative emotions, the presence of positive motions, and the cognitive recognition of the state. In other words, thinking you are happy is likely to make you happy.