There will never be a periodic table of emotions, part 1

November 19, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Fitness, Leadership, Nature

Discovering the periodic table of the elements told us wonders about chemistry and pointed the way toward understanding atoms. Figuring it out pointed the way toward tremendous understanding and improving our lives.

We found similar structures that revealed underlying structure in the spectrum of light, life’s family tree, the standard model of particle physics, and others.

Wouldn’t it be great to find such a structure for our emotions and motivations? Wouldn’t we expect discovering such a structure reveal our emotional system and create tremendous progress in psychology, personal development, achievement, motivation, and well-being?

Why can’t we find such a structure?

I think we never will.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t make tremendous progress in those areas to improve our lives.

Let’s take a step back for context.

We all want to motivate ourselves better. We all want to bring about more of the emotions we like or want and avoid the ones we don’t. We tend to want more happiness, joy, and satisfaction, but sometimes we feel sadness or grief is appropriate. Usually we don’t like misery and suffering, but sometimes we want anger to motivate us.

For thousands of years philosophers and others who want to figure out and teach how to improve our lives — for example, Aristotle and Buddha, but going back before them — recognized the role of emotions in motivating us and determining our well-being.

We’ve all noticed trends in emotions. Anger and hatred seem similar. Love and anger seem opposed. Hunger and thirst seem basic. Most languages have words for virtually the same emotions. And so on. Given these trends, we’d expect someone would have found an underlying structure.

Yet no standard model describes them.

Elsewhere in nature we’ve found patterns which then revealed the underlying structure. The light spectrum — a linear structure — revealed much about light. The periodic table of the elements revealed a lot about chemistry and pointed the way forward to understand atoms. The family tree of life revealed a lot about biology. The standard model of particle physics reveals a lot about particles and forces and pointed the way forward in cosmology and other fields. You know other examples too.

Everyone expects that finding the right categorization scheme will reveal the underlying structure of emotions, we’d understand emotions better, and we’d be able to motivate ourselves better and live better lives (you can almost hear the choir singing). Our emotions are just sitting there, waiting to be categorized, promising a huge life improvement for everyone.

Yet, after thousands of years, nothing useful.

The Wikipedia page on emotions has all sorts of theories and attempts to categorize emotions to help us increase our self-awareness and emotional intelligence beyond where Aristotle and Buddha got. None helps much.

As I said, I don’t think any will succeed.

Tomorrow I’ll describe why and how we can motivate ourselves better improve our lives with that understanding anyway.

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1 response to “There will never be a periodic table of emotions, part 1

  1. Pingback: There will never be a periodic table or spectrum of emotions, part 2 | Joshua Spodek

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