Sign In


Understanding Emotions is Crucial to Understanding People

"Emotion and cognition are the fundamental psychological functions" (Zajonc, 1981, p. 103).

KidsWhy should we understand emotions? The answer is obvious to many of us: our emotions are what define our quality of life. If we are happy, then life is great. The feelings associated with our first real kiss, falling in love, or becoming a parent, are precious to us. However, if we are depressed, then life is a difficult challenge. Yet, the feelings associated with divorce or the death of a loved one, complete the color of our lives, helping to define us.

Emotions themselves are often a reflection of what has happened to us, such as finding a lover, but emotions are not simply a reflection of things or events in our lives. Emotions such as persistent anxiety or shyness can affect the quality of our lives without being tied to specific events. So, although things or events influence our emotions, our emotions are the best index of our quality of life.

The human experience is thinking and feeling, changing, growing, remembering, and living with others. To understanding the human mind, one needs to look at its foundations: emotions, cognition (thinking), and biology. These three components always interact and overlap. All of this occurs in a social world, and it is within the social world that most of our thinking and our emotions take place.

Our success in the social world depends, in large part, on an understanding of our own emotions, on our ability to read the emotions of others, and on our ability to influence our own emotions and the emotions of others. Couples therapists often see the perception and regulation of emotions as central to a couple’s success. Greenberg and Goldman (2008) believed that depressed, anxious, and traumatized individuals need to learn how to access their problem emotions, regulate them, and finally be able to transform them into something more adaptive.

So, it can be argued that emotions determine our quality of life, that they are fundamental to understanding human psychology, and they certainly influence our success in the social world. Perhaps at this point we should ask the simple question: what is an emotion? The answer to this is more complex than you may have imagined.

There have been a number of very different definitions of what emotions are, each definition capturing one particular aspect of emotions. For example, it has been suggested that emotions are bodily changes (James, 1894; 1962) that result in subjective experiences of pleasure or pain (Frijda, 1988); that emotions have an adaptive aspect that increase our chances of survival and reproduction; that emotions are ways that people interact with others (Frijda, 1988); that emotions depend on an individual’s goals (Campos, Dahl, & He, 2010); and that emotions involve cognitive and expressive (verbal and nonverbal) components. All this is true, but perhaps a different wording may be easier to understand. Like James, I define emotions as a feeling (a bodily change). The feeling is triggered by past or present persons, experiences, or things in the environment. The triggers lead to our automatically (unconsciously) evaluating how the person, event, or experiences affects us personally or affects things we care about. Further conscious thoughts may change our feelings or their intensity. These feelings and evaluation processes are the result of our biology; a biology that has been shaped by human evolution.

There are two important aspects of this definition, or description, of emotions that are not understood by the average person and so need to be noted. First, there is a biological side of emotions that needs to be understood, and our biology needs to be understood in the context of human evolution. Emotions helped our early ancestors to adapt to their environment, to have children, and to raise them to become the next generation. The second important aspect of emotions that needs to be noted is that our thoughts influence our emotions, and that some of this thinking occurs at an automatic (unconscious) level.