What is Emotion?

November 14, 2016


After studying philosophy so heavily of late, I’ve been trying to retrain my brain to look at issues affecting the world (down to issues affecting me personally) though a pair of non-emotional glasses. Emotion gets in the way of the truth and the idea is to simply see the truth for how it is – factual and based on reality.

We often confuse reality with our own perspective – we see someone with an angry face and assume they are angry. Our perspective defines our reality but the truth might be that that they are feeling completely fine and that’s just their normal “resting” face.

I also love this quote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. How many of your friends are able to listen to a standpoint or argument that opposes their view without getting emotional and either half-listening or blocking it completely? (Think about climate change, or recent politics for example). Emotion so often gets in the way and it can lead to ignorance.

I’ve been so into this concept of universal truth lately that my wife has started accusing me of evolving into a dalek, so I thought I’d write a new article looking at emotion and the value it can provide.


Some questions to ponder;

What is emotion?
What is it designed for?
Is it for the future? or for the past?
Do people understand why they feel emotion?

Sadness for example, is considered a bad/negative emotion. To provide an example, mothers have a lot of difficulty dealing with it in relation to their own children. Your mother was likely the one that wanted to take your sadness away as soon as possible right? I consider it a strange phenomenon, and I’ll go into why a little later, but think about “why” we have sadness? What’s its purpose?

I propose that all emotion is for the future.

If you stub your toe, you feel pain. Pain then triggers an anger response. The pain and the anger’s purpose isn’t to make you want to go back in time and re-experience it or “un-stub” it, right? The pain is there to help you avoid stubbing your toe in the future (though it’s a lesson I forget at times).

I haven’t been able to find many studies proving this. So, anecdotally at least, emotions seem to be for the future.

Lets imagine if someone hurts you deeply – emotionally – and you allow yourself to feel that pain as you should. I can imagine we’ve all been hurt to some degree so you and I wont need to stretch our imagination too far here, if at all. You don’t feel pain in order to deal with whats happened in the past. What’s happened in the past will have been the trigger, but the pain is primarily there for you to learn to prevent a recurrence in the future.

I found it an interesting exercise to think of any emotion and try to disprove the claim.

I started thinking about shame, and its a very interesting emotion. It appears to be very much a social construct in that it stems from social acceptance. If you feel that some part of you is not “socially acceptable” in some way, the pressure for you to adjust to properly adhere to your society’s expectations is called shame. I will make another article on this because the more I thought about it, the deeper it went. It is a debilitating emotion right? I feel that it can be equally good as it can be bad. Shame can be useful to correct bad behavior, but I would argue that some shame shouldn’t be felt at all.

The shame that society makes me feel as a white male should just not be there at all. In cases like this, people’s live suffer needlessly as a result. I also think that society will make you feel as much shame as possible because it allows governments, corporations and religion to leverage it. Take original sin for example – the catholic church is more than willing to trap you into thinking negatively about yourself because it allows them to take the position of “because you have sin, you must give us money/tithing, you must give us your time, you must give us your attendance, in some cases, you must donate for a confession, you must give us all these things and we will wave a magic wand and take this sin (which we have created in you) away temporarily – until you come back to get rid of some more”.

Longing – the emotion of “missing” someone – is another example of an emotion that’s purpose is to change your future. Don’t confuse this with the sadness one may feel at a lost loved one, I refer to someone missing a friend or relative that is overseas or far away. Longing is looking at your current situation and wanting it to change in a way where you will be in closer physical proximity to a person.

Arousal, I mean, can you argue that its not for the future?

So, if it’s true that emotions are designed for the future, what does this mean?
It means that you can draw learning from anything you feel.

I’ll elaborate on this by focusing on three emotions in particular. After you read, you may think about other emotions you may want to discuss further, I’d be happy to do so with you.


Sadness and anger are similar in ways, but still very different.

When it comes to anger, my wife will get angry at me if she see’s something about me that she wants to change. These changes are mainly behavioral – picking up socks, putting empty toilet rolls in the bin.

My daughter will get angry at her mother, when she wants something to change, and the opposite is the same.

Anger is all about the desire for immediate change. It connects strongly with the “fight” response. Anger is there to tell you “something is not right, and we need to change it, NOW”. It’s a call to action that causes your own body to release adrenaline and endorphin’s. This is the interesting part of anger – the emotion itself is generating and feeding you energy in an effort to help you change whatever it is you want changed, in your relationship, life or a particular situation.


I feel anger is reasonably straight forward, and it’s generally understood by most people.

However, I seem to see sadness in a different light to most, and I want to share this with you so maybe you can too.

I think sadness can be differentiated from anger in that you feel sad when you recognize that you can’t change whatever it is in your life that you want changed. Anger is your biological belief that there is something you can do to change an outcome or situation, but when you accept that there is nothing you can do to change an outcome or situation, sadness will take over and you go through a grieving process.

Sadness is very important because it pertains to relationships with all things. Relationships with people, work, home, even your financial situation. I believe it is equally as useful (if not more so) than anger because it allows you to recognize what you cant change and to mourn what is inflicted on you without your will or choice. You must be capable of feeling sadness – you must welcome it and try to figure out what its trying to tell you.

Not knowing what your emotions are trying to tell you (or bottling them up), could be one of the biggest reasons you are not moving forward in your life as quickly as you’d like.

Sadness is the antidote to dead-end relationships, sadness is the antidote to narcissism.
Sadness is the key out of the jail – anger is not.

When it comes to relationships, there may come a time that you just need to realize that some people are not going to change. When you realize this, there will be a mourning period – and that is true, self and fundamental acceptance of the reality of the situation.

Sadness is so essential – it’s the greatest liberator in the world – to have the ability to feel sad, to listen to it and to let it inform you. Let it motivate you, let it lead you to the truth about the relationships in your life.


Happiness is designed to allow you to live life more richly. It tells you that things are the way they are meant to be. It’s designed to help you appreciate and enjoy the life you have.

Here’s two brief mental exercises we can do to highlight this.

The first is to imagine that there is no afterlife. There is no God. When you die, its a one way road to nothing but blackness and void. For this exercise, lets assume its unpleasant. Imagine you are in a hospital bed, you were rushed there, you are now being told by your doctor that this is a one way bed. You will only live on in memory (blog’s as well, maybe). This is inevitable right? Something is going to put us all in this situation at some point.

Now imagine if someone came along, if I came along, and sat next to your bed. I took you on a brief walk outside the hospital and said, “I have the ability to take you back in time. I can rewind your life and take you back to when you read my article 40-50 years ago”. Imagine if I gave you the opportunity to gain another 40 or so years – that would be an incredible gift, and you’d do almost anything for it. You think about your children, you think about your family, you feel the grass under your feet, or the wind, or the sun and just think – I will never see any of this again.

“Mat, I will give you my left arm, both kidneys and an eyeball right now, if you could do this for me”. You’re on the edge, you are about to fall off. If there was nothing more for you, you would weep for joy for this gift I could give you – but this thing that you would give anything for, this thing that would give you back all your health, youth, opportunities, possibilities – This gift, is something you are living with, every day, right now.

The next time you hear sirens when an ambulance passes you, think – I wonder what that person would give to regain another 40 years on their life. One day, that ambulance is going to be for me, and I have the very thing the person in that ambulance would give everything for.

The second exercise is to imagine you are sitting at home after a day at work, and you get a phone call from the police. “I’m sorry, I regret to inform you that your wife has been involved in a car crash. Can you please come to identify the body”.

Imagine how that would hit you. Your life would completely split another direction. One day its going one way and then BAM, it would all change. Of course, if you don’t have a wife, imagine this happened to someone you loved dearly – a brother, sister, husband, child. Everything you treasure about that relationship would eventually disappear and would not return. Imagine how you would feel – it might be something you have already felt, I don’t know.

Imagine if you got a call an hour later; “Excuse me, I’m really sorry but your wife’s wallet was stolen and the deceased was actually the thief, your wife is OK”.

What a relief that would be. This void that so suddenly opened up, this black hole of loneliness, just vanished. What would you do the next time you saw that person. You would just run into their arms and not let go.

In the case of someone you lost, imagine if I came to you – similarly to the hospital scenario – and said “What would you say if I could rewind your life temporarily, and allow you to ‘re-live’ the last week before your loved one died”. What would you give for that?

The tragic events in these three scenario’s are more than possible – they are inevitable I would say, it’s just the reality of our mortality. Imagine what it would mean to you, to have that youth, energy and time back. Imagine what it would mean to you to be able to re-live the last week of your loved one’s life. To say what you wanted to say, to show them just how much you really love them.

The happiness we feel about what we have now, is what we should enjoy. Its an incredible gift every day, and it goes ignored so often.

Yes we have problems with our government, we see problems with other countries governments, and we have issues with empty toilet rolls on the bathroom floor, but what we have right now is the very thing we would give anything for at the end of our lives, or at the end of our loved ones lives.

Happiness is there to help us live more richly, live more deeply, and to live with an appreciation of your life and other peoples lives.

Thank you for reading! Please subscribe if you found this interesting and want to see more.

Be good to yourself,


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