Why emotions exist: The purpose of our emotions

By Hanan Parvez

Emotions are signals sent by our subconscious mind that motivate us to perform an action which either helps us to attain a reward or makes us avoid something that can potentially harm our well-being.

Simply put, our subconscious mind communicates with us using the language of emotions so that we may be able to seek pleasure, avoid pain and maintain our well-being.

For instance, when you don't eat for a long time, your subconscious mind sends you the feelings of hunger in order to give you a signal that something is 'wrong' and to motivate you to look for food.

Imagine if there were no hunger. Then there would be no way by which you could know when your body has got depleted of nutrients and you would become weak, suffer malnutrition or even die without ever being warned by your mind!

All emotions serve a very similar sort of purpose. They're there to tell us what to do and what not to do. They're there to guide us in our day to day decision making. The point is: Emotions are there for a reason and not just to create drama our lives.

Positive and negative emotions

Nothing is positive or negative in and of itself. We call something 'positive' if it benefits us and 'negative' because it harms us. Strictly speaking, there's no negative emotion because all emotions motivate us to do actions that lead to a potential gain, whether conscious or unconscious, perceived or real.

It's funny how people call fear a negative emotion when it prevents them from approaching strangers and consider it as something positive if it helps them run away from a chasing bear.

Positive and negative are creations of the dual human mind. Anyway, for the sake of convenience, emotions can be broadly classified as positive emotions and negative emotions. Positive emotions are the ones that make us feel good and negative emotions are the ones that make us feel bad.

But why is it so?

Why do positive emotions feel good and negative ones feel bad?

Your subconscious mind is a sort of recording device that is continually watching your actions. If it believes that your current actions will contribute to your well-being than it will send you positive emotions so that you feel motivated to repeat what you're currently doing.

On the other hand, if it believes that what you're currently doing has the potential of harming your well-being, then it'll send you negative emotions so that you're motivated to discontinue doing what you're currently doing or change your actions.

For instance, if you're trying to lose weight, then you’ll feel good after you exercise because exercising is something that’s going to make you achieve your goal and your mind wants you to repeat the activity.

If, on the other hand, you eat unhealthy junk food, then you’ll feel bad because your mind is trying to tell you that “this is wrong, something you shouldn't be doing when you're trying to lose weight”. Your mind sends you bad feelings so that you do not repeat this activity.

How emotions are triggered

Our emotions are primarily triggered by our thoughts. These thoughts arise from our belief systems or from our interpretation of external events. Whenever an external event happens, we attach meaning to that event. It's this meaning that results in emotions.

This meaning that we attach to life events is partly in-born and partly learnt.

Now the problem is that this ‘attachment of meaning’ process is hardly a conscious process for a lot of people. That’s why most people believe that emotions appear out of nowhere and that they have no control over them.

They have little or no clue about how their emotional state changes simply because they don't have enough emotional awareness i.e. the ability to be aware of the situations and thoughts that trigger your emotions. It's a skill that can be developed by practice.

emotions emoticons
What happens + How we interpret it = Emotions
The reason why emotions appear to be automatic is that we may not be fully aware when they're being manufactured in the depths of our subconscious. We usually become aware after an emotion is triggered.

Our subconscious mind first gathers information from the environment, sorts out facts and then decides the suitable emotion that should be triggered in any given situation.

For example, suppose a person throws a chocolate wrapper on the ground instead of a rubbish bin and two other persons i.e. person A and person B watch him.

If A thinks that we should take care of our environment then most probably the feelings of anger and disgust will be generated in him. However, no such emotions may get triggered in B because he doesn't bother about the cleanliness of the environment.

It's all a game of beliefs, the thoughts that arise from those beliefs and consequently the way in which we interpret an incident. Some of these beliefs are genetically programmed into our psyche (e.g. fear of falling) while others are learnt during our past life experiences (e.g. people can't be trusted).

Once you develop enough awareness, then you’ll be able to carefully observe the thoughts that cross your mind when you experience certain events and with practice you’ll come to know exactly what causes your emotional state to change.

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