Why do we experience emotions?

Despite the dominant role that emotions play in our lives, variously motivating us, attracting others, confounding us, winning or losing elections, selling products, deepening our connection with one another or sending us to war, leading us into brave actions as well as catastrophic decisions, we rarely give the meaning and purpose of emotions more than a casual thought.

In neuropsychological terms, this question might be phrased; how is it that all birds, reptiles and animals, without exception, have a limbic brain? Through the course of millions of years of evolution this complex brain structure is found in all animals from early vertebrates to modern humans and dolphins, creating the sensation of emotion, linked to both motivation and the storage of memory.*

What fundamental role do emotions play?  The answer, you may have correctly guessed, has to do with survival. Without emotions we would live only a short and possibly meaningless life.

The relationship between needs and feelings

Emotions are our body’s signal to us about the ‘state of our needs’ at any moment. Consider again Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Let’s imagine first how we might feel if our needs are not being met. How would you feel if you

  • have not slept for several days?
  • anticipate that someone will attack you when you next go outside?
  • believe that no one cares for or loves you?
  • have an important task to complete but believe you lack the knowledge and ability to do so?
  • are repeating the same arduous task you have been doing for years, with neither challenge nor meaning?

Perhaps you would experience feelings similar to irritable, worried/anxious,  lonely, insecure, or bored. You might agree that these are not the types of emotions we wish for. We might attempt avoid situations in which they occur.

Conversely, imagine you how you might feel if you are certain of performing well in an important and challenging situation. Would you not feel confident and fulfilled? And if you knew that a community of family and friends loved you loyally. Might you not then feel happy or content? There is a sense of security we feel in our own home. And perhaps there is a rush of joy sitting down to that turkey dinner (or vegetarian cassoulet) at Thanksgiving. Surely, these feelings are preferable, ones you might attempt to experience more often?

Coempowerment - Emotional Intelligence for Men - rel between feelings and needsIn this simple way, our emotions steer us toward the attainment of our needs. This is the gift of emotion and the reason it has not significantly changed its role over the course of billions of years of evolution.

Without emotions we would ignore our needs, struggle and possibly die at a much earlier age; we might consciously step into harms way without the warning system of fear to stop us.

Insects lack a cortex, amygdala, and other structures of the limbic brain implicated in emotion. They are guided instead by successful behavioral patterns that benefit the survival of their species. They are individually able to sacrifice their life whenever it benefits their community (hive or colony) to do so. Yet we might recoil at such a prospect. Even suicide bombers act on the promise of blissful and honoured life after death. Martyrdom with motive neither for personal benefit nor retaliation is indeed rare in our own species. Exceptions typically include sacrificing one’s own need for that of a child or loved one. In such cases we are meeting our need for love, albeit altruistically. Soldiers, police, and other emergency service professionals who put their life on the line to protect others are doing so after considerable training that enables them to act override their instinct of self-preservation in crisis situations. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when that instinct resurfaces after-the-fact.

Six Core Emotions

So we know that emotions serve as a need compass, providing the motivation and direction to navigate through life’s ambiguity. This we share with all our animal companions. On thing that sets us apart, however, is the development of our sequential memory; that is, our ability to mentally place events in the past, present and future**. Humans are storytellers. Consequently our feelings of attraction and repulsion are also differentiated in this manner, according to need in the past, present and future.

To see how this works, you can ask when did – or will – a need (food, safety, love, or self-worth) occur; in the past, the future, or the present?

Positive feelings signal that our needs were, are, or likely will be met. We can feel satisfied about something that went well (past), happy about what were are doing (present), or excited about something we are looking forward to (future). Of course, we have learned to use one word “happy” more broadly to include past and future, yet that muddies our communication. As the Dalai Lama wrote in The Art of Happiness, we can recall being happy in the past or anticipate it in the future, but to really experience it, one must be fully present in a moment when all needs are being met.

Negative feelings signal that our needs were not, are not, or likely will not be met. We can feel sad about something that went wrong, a desire not realized (past), frustrated or angry (in the present) as we are attempting to make something work but having difficulty, or worried or anxious about what is to come (future). Some people use the umbrella term upset in a vague way which could apply to any of these and consequently is not effective at communicating our needs.

How our emotions guide us

Our emotions steer us effectively to good choices. If we are content or satisfied, we’ll likely want to remember and repeat the behavior we were just engaging in. It is similar to a bookmark that reminds us to return to a good webpage. Excitement is an internal motivator to continue along the path we are currently on. And happiness validates that we do not need to search any further, we have found what we need.

Negative emotions also are important to us. Bit by bit, sadness causes us to let go of something that can no longer be part of our life. Fear alerts us to either change our course or seek assistance. And frustration or anger is the signal to take a break, we are overwhelmed and need time and space to reset (or, if need be, more assertively set a boundary).

So take some time this month to attune to your emotions, notice if you can identify each of the six core emotions on a daily basis. If initially one seems rare or absent, be curious to look for its presence in your life. There is rarely a day that all needs are met, and it is healthy to notice not only the positive but also the complete array of negative emotions. They are here to help us.

In our next blog in this series, we’ll explore how to communicate these feelings effectively, to help ensure that others are able to respond as we might hope to our needs and emotions.


* The hippocampus in particular is responsible for the conversion of short- to long-term memory. In this, our emotions play a role in determining what needs to be remembered.
** Even elephants, who we note have an exceptional memory, do not recall events sequentially but rather in parallel. Their long-term memory results from an effective consolidation of emotions in response to a constellation of stimuli.

One thought on “Why do we experience emotions?

  1. Nicely written, Stephen. A very good explanation in easily understood language. I imagine e this framework can be fairly useful to many people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *