What are emotions and why do we feel them?


Why do we feel angry when people do things that we dislike? Why are we afraid to walk alone at night in areas where there are no other human beings nearby? Why do we feel happy when things that we like and enjoy occur? Can we change or control our emotions? Do our emotions have anything to do with our mental health? These and other related issues are the focus of our discussions today.

Human emotions are very strong and powerful social signals which help us to react to our external environment. They play an important role in the way we think and behave; and help us to communicate voluntarily or involuntarily with others. This is because, at our core, we are social animals.

Emotions are universal to each and every human being, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, social status or geographical location. These emotions have evolved over time and are evidently ingrained into our genes.

For example, the facial expressions of someone who has been blind from birth, are no different from others when expressing basic emotions such as fear or anger. Thus, the face and other parts of our body can accurately convey our emotions in such a manner that others can interpret how we are feeling.

This is very useful in terms of inter-personal relationships (non-verbal communication cues) and learning when to change direction or to make amends when it appears the other person is angry, disinterested or surprised by what you have to say.

There are three components of emotions: a). How we experience them b). How our body reacts to the emotion and c). How we behave when we experience the emotion.


What are the basic emotions?

Several theories exist about which emotions are primary or fundamental, and which others are secondary emotions. However, the majority seem to agree on six primary emotions:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Disgust

Fear: This is an instinctive reaction to an unmet need or worries about our safety. For example, walking alone at night with the fear of being attacked by robbers. The body’s reaction is universally the same, with widening of the pupils of the eyes, muscles becoming tense and ready to help us escape the danger or fight it (flight-fight response) and the heart beating faster to supply our muscles with glucose and oxygen.

Anger: This is an intense and unpleasant reaction to actions which makes us very upset. For example, we may feel humiliated, insulted, or disrespected which then leads to our experience of the emotion of anger. It is an emotion that gives us energy which can be utilized positively (constructively) or negatively (destructively)

Surprise: This is a familiar emotion that we experience when something unexpectedly happens to us, and we are caught unawares. Surprises may be pleasant or unpleasant depending on the nature of the unexpected event and it’s impact on us.

Happiness: This is another familiar emotion where we are satisfied with events or ongoing experiences which makes us to feel content and fulfilled. It is especially experienced when our desires/needs are met. Examples include being promoted at work, doing very well in an examination, winning a competition e.t.c.

However, happiness is not always associated with having financial resources, as one may live in a good house, have food, wealth and be surrounded by family but may still have unmet emotional needs such as a need to be accepted by his/her peers in school

Sadness: This is a feeling of misery which drains us of energy as well as motivation. It may occur because we feel lonely, discouraged, unappreciated, unloved or as a result of some loss.

Disgust: This is a strong feeling of revulsion which we experience when we encounter something that completely irritates us and makes us feel like throwing up.


What are the functions of emotions?

Emotions serve us in the same way our eyes, ears and other sensory organs help us to interact with our environment, by providing us with information. Some of the functions of emotions include:

a). Information: The emotion of fear provides information about danger, such as when you see a snake on the road, and this makes you immediately to jump and then start running – even before your brain processes the information.

b). Motivation: Negative emotions that makes one uncomfortable may motivate one to actively avoid such situations. A good example will be studying hard for an examination because you don’t want to fail.

c). Interpersonal relations: It allows us to understand people and for them to understand us too. For example, seeing someone crying shows us they are unhappy and we may go over to console them.


Next week, we will discuss how our emotions affect our mental health as well as how to recognize and control our emotions.