What Are Emotions?

Feelings are a dominant force in learning, they are powerful and meaningful. But what are they? What happens inside us when our “feelings are hurt” or when we are ready to “jump for joy”? At workshops, Six Seconds’ trainers often post a list of six to eight core emotions, and participants frequently ask why those particular emotions are the “core” emotions. Are the other feelings less “real”? Is there some secret code only EQ-ologists know?

Interviews with EQ experts, including John (Jack) Mayer, Eric Jensen, Candace Pert, Anabel Jensen, Maurice Elias, John Steinberg, and J-P Dupreez offer new perspectives.

by Joshua Freedman (first published in EQ Today, June, 2000)

“Emotions help keep us on the right track by making sure that we are led by more than cognition.”
– Maurice Elias


“An emotion occurs when there are certain biological, certain experiential, and certain cognitive states which all occur simultaneously.”
– Jack Mayer


“Emotions are the glue that holds the cells of the organism together.”
– Candace Pert


“There are a hundred or perhaps a thousand other emotions, or gradations, created by the mixing, blending, and overlapping of the basic ones.”
– Anabel Jensen


“There are emotions which are more biologically oriented and then there are complex emotions which are saturated with thoughts and cognition.”
– Jack Mayer


“Our emotions are shaped by our beliefs — by what we tell ourselves.”
– Karen McCown

While scholars, teachers, and the rest of us use the words “emotion” and “feeling” on a regular basis, it turns out that labels are somewhat arbitrary. John D. (Jack) Mayer, a researcher who in partnership with Peter Salovey provided the first formal definition and experimental measurement of “emotional intelligence,” explains: “Although scientific language is often precise, sometimes it may be left more open-ended, because we scientists recognize as a group that we don’t have final answers to questions like, ‘what is an emotion?’ or ‘what is a feeling?’ or ‘what are core emotions?'”

“Different researchers,” Mayer continues, “define emotions differently. There are biologically-oriented researchers who define emotions as very close to simple biological states, or electro-chemical reactions. There are psychologists who define emotions as conscious experience. Most people who study emotions are somewhere in between and they view emotions as a coordinated response system, so that an emotion occurs when there are certain biological, certain experiential, and certain cognitive states which all occur simultaneously.”

In other words, emotions operate on many levels. They have a physical aspect as well as a psychological aspect.

According to Mayer, there is evidence that emotions are a motor activity as well. Emotions, then, bridge thought, feeling, and action – they operate in every part of a person, they affect many aspects of the person, and the person affects many aspects of the emotions.

As researchers work to identify the core emotions, the lists vary depending on the researcher’s area of focus. Some lists focus on chemicals, some on facial expressions, some on cross-cultural similarities, some on behaviors. In general, researchers agree that there are different kinds of emotions/feelings. Mayer: “There are emotions which are more biologically oriented and then there are complex emotions which are saturated with thoughts and cognition. For example, a more basic-like emotion would be simple sadness, whereas a more cognitively-saturated emotion would be something like guilt, where usually you have to have learned something in order to feel the guilt.”

From an educator’s viewpoint, this interaction between cognition and emotion opens a portal to a new learning potential. Through that door we can learn to teach about emotions.

So, while we wait for researchers to clarify the systems, it will be useful to have some vocabulary. Here are some ideas about defining emotions and feelings:


Maurice Elias, Ph.D.

Coauthor of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, Promoting Social and Emotional Learning, and a professor of education at Rutgers University.

What are emotions? Emotions are human beings’ warning systems as to what is really going on around them. Emotions are our most reliable indicators of how things are going in our lives. They are also like an internal gyroscope; emotions help keep us on the right track by making sure that we are led by more than cognition.

If you have a list of core emotions what are they? There are more emotions that we feel than we can label. Emotions are fundamentally not cognitive/verbal, so as soon as we try to name them, we begin to be cognitive instead. When we start to talk about emotions, we’re losing some parts of them. In our curricula, we encourage our kids to develop as broad a feeling vocabulary as possible so kids can express themselves. But for some kids, when you say “how did that feel?”, the answer is, “that feels like the time when I got lost at the mall.” And you can’t capture that time by saying, “I was scared.” That feeling and that event and that situation are all wrapped up together.

What is the difference between emotions and feelings? I have no idea (with a laugh) and you can quote me!


Candace Pert, Ph.D.

Author of Molecules of Emotion and Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d and a research professor at the Georgetown University Medical Center.

What are emotions? Emotions are the glue that holds the cells of the organism together in the material world, and in the spiritual world they’re the glue that holds the classrooms and the society together. That’s why they are so interesting, because they’re on a material level – the molecules of emotion as I’ve studied them as a scientist – and they’re in the spiritual realm as well.

When you talk about emotions, do you use a list of “core emotions”? For me the key principle is that each emotion probably has a chemical that is in many parts of the body and the brain, so you can’t think that the body is there just to carry the head around. So learning has to address the whole child.

[Here is an interview with Dr. Pert on her book, Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d where she provides much more detail about the neurobiological function of emotion and the power of bliss to teach us what's most important]


Anabel Jensen, Ph.D.

President of Six Seconds, coauthor of Self-Science and Handle With Care, and a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University.

What are emotions? Emotions are generated in the brain and the brain drives the body. So I agree with Epictetus who stated, “We are disturbed not by things, but by the views we take of things.” So first we think, then we feel, and then we act. And I think love, guilt, hate, happiness, anger – all the feeling-states – are byproducts of the actions we take. So love of a child comes from the exhilaration and excitement of the miracle of birth, plus the immeasurable hours of nurture, care, and service to his/her growth and development.

If you have a list of core emotions what are they? I am a minimalist. There are three essential or primary emotions. Ecstasy, terror, and despair. And then there are a hundred or perhaps a thousand other emotions, or gradations, created by the mixing, blending, and overlapping of the basic ones. I like the metaphor of an artist’s palette where from three basic colors s/he creates almost innumerable variations and shades depending on how the portions of each color are mixed. So “angry” is a blend of terror and despair. If anger is a deep vermillion, then irritation is a blushing shade of red.

What is the difference between emotions and feelings? Emotions are the raw material. They come with the DNA package. Feelings are the interpretation of the raw data given by the brain and reinforced by the individual’s culture.


Jack Block, Ph.D.

Professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the director of the Block Project, a longitudinal study of child development.

What are emotions? I think the basic emotion is anxiety and that one tries to avoid anxiety, in various ways.

If you have a list of core emotions what are they? I do not have a list of “core” emotions although many exist, those by Paul Ekman and by Richard Lazarus being well known. They take a “horizontal” view of emotions; I prefer to think of them as hierarchically organized, with the differentiated negative emotions serving, mostly, to reduce anxiety. The positive emotions (when they do not serve as relief from anxiety) serve a different life zest that appears mostly when anxiety is not preemptive. I do not see any deep difference between emotions and feelings except that, definitionally, one might want to make feelings conscious and be non-committal about the consciousness of emotions.


John Steinberg

Author and educator in Sweden. His 26th book is about redefining schooling in the information age; visit www.steinberg.se.

What are emotions? Key emotions, as I see it, are disappointment, fear, and the longing for self-worth. We may long for love, but isn’t love simply an affirmation of our need for self-worth? When we don’t feel appreciated or affirmed we become disappointed. This in turn becomes anger and may turn to fear. Most negative behavior is the outgrowth of not feeling self-worth. It is not the child who feels good about him or herself that acts out destructively against the world. Perhaps the most valuable gift a parent can give the child is a feeling of value. Unconditional love is truly hard to give, yet each condition put on love leads the child to question him or herself.

Every time we affirm the child’s right to feel what he or she feels we help build a positive base for the future. Every time we tell the child that he or she is okay whatever disappointment we feel at a specific action, we affirm a sense of value. We all make mistakes as parents, friends, and as young people growing up into an increasingly uncertain world. We use sarcasm. We send guilt. We ignore. But there are magical moments as well. We listen. We see. We affirm. We encourage and show that we care. It is so we give hope for the future where children will learn self-respect knowing their value for themselves, others, and their world.


Karen Stone McCown

Chairman and Founder of Six Seconds, the Founder of the Nueva School, and author of Self-Science.

What are emotions? Emotions are our responses to the world around us, and they are created by the combination of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. What is most important is for each of us to learn that we create our own emotions. Our responses are shaped by our thoughts – by what we tell ourselves. As we clarify our understanding of our own beliefs and patterns, we learn that we are actually choosing our own lives. We take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions; we become accountable.


J-P Du Preez

Organizational consultant and a Senior Lecturer at Potchefstroom University, South Africa.

What are emotions? Emotions originate from exposure to specific situations. The nature and the intensity of the emotion are usually related to cognitive activity in the form of the perception of the situation. That thought process or perception results in the experience and/or the expression of a related feeling.

If you have a list of core emotions what are they? A number of researchers (e.g., Ekman & Friesen, Izard, and others) have isolated certain core emotions that are evident among all cultures. Ekman & Friesen have identified six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, anger, and fear. Fascinating, though, is the occurrence of only one positive emotion (happiness) on the list of core emotions! Let’s allow ourselves to feel whatever we want to feel – why restrict it to only six options of which five are negative? Due to the close link between emotional experience and creativity I believe there is a wide variety of possible emotional responses to different situations.

What is the difference between emotions and feelings? A feeling is the response part of the emotion. Emotion is an “umbrella term” which includes the situation, the interpretation/perception of the situation and the response or feeling related to the perception of the situation.


Eric Jensen, Ph.D.

Author of The Learning Brain, Brain-Based Learning, director of Jensen Learning, and a co-founder of SuperCamp; online at www.thebrainstore.com.

What are emotions? Biologically driven, cross-cultural responses to environmental stimuli.

If you have a list of core emotions what are they? Anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, joy and fear.

What is the difference between emotions and feelings? Emotions are cross cultural – the same all over the world. Feelings are a subset of all of our mind-body states (disappointment, hunger, hope, etc. There are hundreds of them!). Feelings are a learned response in the culture in which you grow up (the family, the peers, the community, etc.).

The huge set has ALL mind/body states, then feelings, emotions, thoughts and moods are all subsets of that huge set of life states.


Note: For more on understanding emotions, exlore “Emotoscope,” our online feeling finder — after you’ve found a feeling, you’ll be able to read about the purpose and causes of that feeling.

About the author - Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.

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