What is the Function of Our Emotions?

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First published in April 2015


photo by darkroom davis

Emotions are a universal part of being human. From the anger we feel when a shopkeeper is rude to us, to the sadness that overwhelms us at a funeral, our emotions define our species as much as does our ability to communicate with words.

Even when we attempt to suppress them — working on our calm, cool and collected exterior — our emotions follow us everywhere. On some days, they change like the seasons; on others, like a winter storm rushing across the ocean toward the shoreline.

But unlike thoughts, our emotions are entirely unconscious. Sometimes we can pinpoint the source of our happiness or anger, but not always. With the right tools, though, we can develop better awareness of them. But what function do emotions serve in our lives?

For cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, emotions were a cultural phenomenon, shaped entirely by the society in which they developed. Charles Darwin, though, saw them more as evolved expressions, rather than extensions of our culture. Research done by psychologists such as Paul Ekman support this idea.

A key part of Ekman’s research involved visiting a stone-age preliterate tribe in New Guinea. The members of the tribe had never been exposed to the outside world — no movies, books, or magazines. Ekman asked them to show how they would respond to certain events — like a good friend returning from a long trip or the death of a loved one. Their facial features — the external expression of internal emotions — matched what you might expect from someone living in New York City.

So it appears that emotions, and their display, are part of the basic structure of our species. Some scientists think that because they are universal, emotions evolved as responses to the environment in which our ancestors lived — disgust as a sign of poisonous or rotten food, shame to reinforce cohesion of the social group, or guilt as a signal that we have violated a social moral.

Although people from all societies experience emotions, they talk about them differently. In fact, traditional languages of Buddhism, such as Tibetan, Sanskrit and Pali, have no word for “emotion.” This, of course, matches what scientists have learned about the brain. Every area that has been found to be connected to emotions also has a role in cognition. So our emotions and our ability to think are intertwined.

This parallels the Buddhist view — that these two processes cannot be separated. Like psychologists, Buddhists believe that our thoughts, speech and actions are strongly influenced by our emotions. Buddhists, however, don’t distinguish between our thinking and our emotions. Instead they look at which mental activities lead to enduring happiness — sukha — or to suffering — duhkha.

Buddhists believe that in order to realize sukha, you need to not only strengthen your attention and mindfulness, but also find emotional balance. By developing all three of these, you are able to see the true nature of the world more clearly, rather than the version projected onto it by your mind. Emotions, then, play an important part in our quest for enduring happiness.
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“Although you can find certain differences among the Buddhist philosophical schools about how the universe came into being, the basic common question addressed is how the two fundamental principles — external matter and internal mind or consciousness — although distinct, affect one another. External causes and conditions are responsible for certain of our experiences of happiness and suffering. Yet we find that it is principally our own feelings, our thoughts and our emotions, that really determine whether we are going to suffer or be happy.”
Dalai Lama, Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection

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