The idea that emotions factor into our overall sense of life satisfaction seems to be taken for granted. After all, how could anyone recognize their own well-being without feeling something toward it, one way or another?
Indeed, emotion has been a part of human discourse throughout history, with emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and melancholia (a precursor for the modern-day concept of depression) being discussed back in Ancient Greece. And yet, the study of our internal, emotional landscape had not begun in earnest until the 19th Century, when researchers such as Darwin began mapping out what they felt (pun intended) to be humanity’s evolution of emotions.
So what constitutes an emotion, how have emotions developed, and in what ways can they influence our sense of quality of life, both in terms of emotional well-being, and beyond it? Read on to find out.
Our understanding of emotions and emotional well-being is tied into their definitions, which connect them to more tactile, physical sensations, across different languages. Hebrew, for example, uses the same root for “emotion” and “sensitivity,” while English provides the synonym of “feeling,” referring to both sensory information collected from the environment, and mental responses to our experiences that can activate memories, allow for reflection, and elicit physical or behavioral responses.
The American Psychological Association (APA) adds that emotions are subjective, conscious mental reactions, which often elicit bodily responses, such as tears of sadness or joy. As opposed to thoughts, which attempt to understand the world and one’s experiences in it, by implementing logic and other forms of mental organizations, feelings are often described as more visceral, and linked to bodily, gut sensations that defy logic.
A key contribution to our understanding of emotions came from Darwin, whose theory of evolution extended beyond the physical realm to how emotions have developed over time. Darwin’s studies found that certain emotions are expressed the same way throughout the world, suggesting they are innate. Further 19th and 20 Century research on emotions discovered neurological pathways and brain structures, such as the limbic system (particularly the amygdala), and the endocrine system (particularly the hypothalamus).
Researchers following in Darwin’s footsteps have suggested that emotions, and the facial expressions used to convey them, evolved out of necessity, to communicate the existence of a potential threat, through fear or surprise. Showing disgust expressed that a certain food should be avoided due to its foul smell. And an oncoming attack could be signaled through gestures of anger.
Additionally, the formation of hierarchical societies required the need to gauge the rankings of its members. This social need was met through the expression of such emotions as pride or shame.
Finally, the brain’s endocrine system has been shown to incite aggressive feelings, or a sense of calm and relaxation, depending on the temperature of the hypothalamus.
When looking to comprehend the role emotions play in our well-being, it is important to acknowledge that all types of emotion — positive, negative, pleasant, or aversive — can benefit the individual experiencing or expressing them within the right context. The hypervigilance and distressing sensations that come with fear, for instance, can be extremely unpleasant to undergo. But they can alert both the individual and those around them to an emergency that has to be addressed, protecting their lives (and well-being) in the process.
To that end, while more pleasant emotions such as joy, happiness, or contentment allow us to explore life in a creative curious fashion, more adverse or challenging emotions such as anger, guilt, or courage can help us respond, or adjust to the hardships of life. Even more subdued, or energy-sapping emotions such as sadness or grief have their benefits, as they can encourage us to acknowledge and process our personal pain, and eventually, to move past them.
To that end, studies have shown that positive emotions that are directed at oneself such as encouragement are linked to a greater quality of life. They additionally discuss social emotional well-being, stating that a mixture of positive and negative emotions directed at others, such as encouragement and worry, are similarly linked to a better quality of life. These results are explained as reflecting eudaimonic emotions, which are emotions that express care for others and wanting to do what is meaningful, even at the price of conjuring unpleasant feelings. In other words, while intrapsychic well-being can benefit from positive emotion, receiving care through concern from others could also show that one is cared for, thought of, and appreciated by those around them.
Additional research has found resilience to adverse life experiences to be a particularly beneficial emotion, as it can protect against rumination and having one’s pain define their personal perspective. Meditation in particular can assist in fortifying one’s resilience in the face of adversity. Cognitive-based psychotherapy has similarly been shown to strengthen one’s resistance through its focus on automatic thought patterns. Additionally, self–affirmation techniques, which highlight the individual’s goals and aspirations, can help them turn their mind toward more beneficial emotional responses, while still acknowledging the place that all types of feelings can have.
Our emotional landscape is a pivotal part of our own appreciation of all that it entails, both as we go through it, and when we stop to look back and reflect. Seeing the different colors of the emotional spectrum can sometimes be hard, and even overwhelming. But it can also be the path toward acceptance, peace, and true strength.