Calling emotions positive or negative doesn’t help — it hurts

posted by Joshua on July 16, 2011 in Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature
6 responses

Emotions are how your emotional system reacts to your perception of your environment with motivation to behave. In every culture around the world, in every language, essentially all of us share the same emotions. This commonality is not an accident. Human behavior is driven by human emotions and our behavior is what made us so overwhelmingly successful in population and geographic spread.

Our behavior and emotions didn’t come out of nowhere. They evolved, as in every other species. Our would-be ancestors who behaved less effectively in their environments didn’t have as many children and we didn’t descend from them. Our ancestors who behaved most effectively had the most children and we are their descendents.

You may say you feel good when you enjoy ice cream and bad when you get angry, but how they feel is just one part of them. To call the emotions good or bad confuses their role. For millions of years, our ancestors’ environments selected different emotions — those emotions were either effective or ineffective in motivating behavior that got themselves passed to future generations. Whether the emotions subjectively felt good or bad had no effect on that selection process — only the behavior.

Today we have the emotions that were effective in those environments and haven’t since been selected away. Every emotion was somehow helpful — love, joy, and happiness no more than hatred, rage, or anger.

To call pleasure good and pain bad misses that both are effective. The pleasure of eating a mango motivates you eating more mangoes, which is healthy. The pain of stubbing your toe motivates you to avoid stubbing it again, which is healthy. To the extent our environments differ from those in which the emotions evolved, we have to adjust and I assume readers can make those adjustments, recognizing, for example, we feel motivation to eat more sugar than is healthy as a result of our environments today compared to any time before.

Likewise, to say love is good or positive and hate is bad or negative misses that each motivates behavior that is either effective or not. Overall over the past few million years all of today’s emotions have been helpful. You have to figure out if today’s different environment makes any unhelpful in any circumstances.

Calling emotions negative misses how helpful they are — all of them. You may not like feeling pain, but pain helps you avoid unhealthy things. You may not like feeling hatred or any other emotion people call negative, but they help you avoid unhealthy things. They improve your life. You have each emotions for a reason. Denying them or acting like you don’t feel them makes them less effective.

Calling them negative motivates people to avoid them, even when they are helpful. It also motivates people to deny feeling things they do — who, with gritted teeth, flaring nostrils, and glaring eyes, say “I’m not angry, I am happy.”

The circuitry of your emotional system that makes you feel, say, depression is the same circuitry that helped motivate your ancestors to emigrate from a small area of Africa to populate the planet, to form large communities, and to create the civilization you live in.

The value of seeing emotions not as good, bad, positive, or negative, but useful is that in sensing emotions others might call bad or negative, you respond with curiosity to understand what in your environment or perception prompted the emotion and what behavior it’s motivating. With that knowledge you can understand your environment and yourself better. You can react thoughtfully rather than reactively. Avoiding or denying emotions is reactive. Considering them is thoughtful and gives you a chance to choose your best course of action.

Edit: I referred to this post in my series on the Model — my model for the human emotional system.

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6 responses on “Calling emotions positive or negative doesn’t help — it hurts

  1. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » The Model: emotions in more depth

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  3. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » The Model: more on the difference between “positive” and rewarding emotions

  4. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » Non-Method method 4: positive thinking

  5. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » The Method: example 2: overwhelming joy on a bleak morning

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