7 Amazing Facts About Emotions You Should Know
Understanding how emotions work empowers you to navigate them more effectively
Emotions are part of human biology. They are chemicals that help regulate our minds and bodies, assisting us to cope with the complexities of making decisions, interacting with people, and finding our way through life. We feel emotions to help us pay attention, focus our attention and motivate us to action. While sometimes they’re confusing, emotions are part of us, so we might as well learn to use them well – and these 7 essential facts about emotions is a good place to start.
by Michael Miller
7 Amazing Facts About Emotions
1. Emotions are electrochemical signals that flow through us in an unending cycle. They are released in our brains in response to our perceptions about the world. We feel them all the time, which makes me wonder why I learned how to divide one fraction by another and all about Henry VIII beheading his wives, but basically nothing about something so critical to my everyday health and wellbeing. But anyway, emotions are released in our brains and flow all throughout our body, all the time. They also are produced in our bodies and go to our brains – check out this article, The Physics of Emotion: Dr. Candace Pert on Feeling Go(o)d – which talks more about this idea of emotions as feedback loop carrying info to help us function.
2. There are 8 basic emotions – and countless variations and nuances of those. The 8 basic emotions are Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Surprise, Anticipation, Anger and Trust. There are different models of which are the basic ones, but this comes from a scientist named Robert Plutchik, who also created a Wheel of Emotions to illustrate these 8 emotions in a compelling way. It shows visually the dynamism of emotions, like what happens to an emotion when it’s left unchecked and what you get when you combine two emotions, like Anticipation and Joy. It’s pretty interesting stuff, especially when you know how to interpret the wheel. For a full break down, check out Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. If you want to enhance your emotional literacy, which is an essential component of practicing EQ, this is a great place to start.
3. Emotions are neutral. That is to say, some emotions are not inherently good and others bad. It may seem this way, since, for example, joy seems to be a clear winner over sadness. I mean, who wants to be sad? But there are two problems with this way of thinking. The first problem is that joy and sadness have more in common than we think. Joy means I get something I care about. Sadness means I lose something I care about. So they are really two sides of the same need, and we couldn’t have one without the other. And the second problem is that every emotion is simply a signal, delivering a message. Even difficult emotions like fear, anger or sadness are serving an important function.
So, what are the functions of emotions?
4. Emotions function to guide us to survive and thrive. Emotions focus our attention and motivate us toward a specific course of action. Each emotion has a purpose. Take anger, for example. Anger is a signal that our path is blocked. It focuses our attention on the threat and motivates a response of fighting or pushing through the obstacle. It can be used destructively, of course, but it also gives us the energy to find solutions to pressing problems. And what about another emotion, like Joy? Joy focuses our attention on an opportunity, and motivates us to do more of whatever we are doing. We feel joy when we experience meaning and connection, and the purpose of the emotion is to tell us that those are good things, which we should seek out. Six Seconds developed a tool called the Emotoscope Feeling Chart, which helps decode the purpose and meaning of different feelings. It has dozens of feelings – all variations of Sadness, Joy, Fear, and Anger – and then the message that each emotion is sending. For example, the other day, I was feeling overwhelmed by life. I was too busy and my head was swimming. I looked at the chart and under sad, I found overwhelmed. What was the purpose of that feeling? To let you know you need to prioritize. You can down the Emotoscope Feeling Chart for free and keep a copy at your home or office.
5. Emotions are contagious. Feelings spread between people like a virus, even if we’re not paying attention to emotions. Whether we’re in a group or with one other person, we can “catch” both positive and negative emotions. The evolutionary basis of this is simple: humans have only survived and thrived in groups. We are social creatures. And because of that, we have a tendency to pick up on each other’s emotional states. Think about it this way. If you see fear on someone’s face, you are more likely to survive if you react quickly – if your own fear response is activated instantaneously. It could be the difference between getting eaten by that tiger your friend just saw – or getting away.
And it’s not just fear. We are constantly sending and picking up emotional messages through a number of mechanisms, including voice inflection, facial expressions, posture and specific behavioral patterns. It’s an incredibly important form of communication that we all partake in, even if we don’t realize it. It’s so deeply wired that we unknowingly imitate the slowness of old people, which is one of my all time favorite facts about emotions.
A study by Facebook and Cornell University found that emotional contagion even happens on social media. We are deeply wired.
6. Emotions are different than feelings – and moods. But they are all interrelated, of course. What is the difference? Basically, time. And to what extent our cognitive thoughts are involved. For an in-depth look at the difference, check out this article, What’s the Difference Between Emotions, Feelings, and Moods?
7. Emotions are absorbed in the body in about six seconds. Each burst of emotion chemicals, from the time its produced in the hypothalamus to the time it’s completely broken down and absorbed, lasts about six seconds. That’s how our organization got its name. If we’re feeling something for longer than six seconds, we are – at some level – choosing to recreate and refuel those feelings. Sometimes that’s good – if the tiger is still chasing you, those fear chemicals are helping save your life. Sometimes it’s not. But recognizing what emotion we are feeling, evaluating its purpose relative to our circumstances, and deciding whether to recreate it is what emotional intelligence is all about. If you want to learn more about emotional intelligence and how to practice it, check out Get Started with Emotional Intelligence.
“What if our emotions could be a resource to us, instead of an enemy, or something irrelevant, or something overwhelming? What if they could be a resource to us that could connect us with ourselves and each other?”