An emotion refers to an affective state that brings about a temporary physiological change, such as an increase in heart rate or fluttering in the stomach. We know what emotion we are experiencing by what we think. For example, if our hands begin shaking, then we may cognitively associate this physiological state with fear.

Emotions are different than feelings in that emotions are fundamental physiological processes that we interpret cognitively. Feelings can be thought of as the subjective experience of an emotional state. We interpret emotions cognitively in order to drive our behavior, to define our experience, and to communicate with others. Thus, emotions are hard-wired, physiological responses.

From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of emotions are for survival (e.g. fight or flight) and to socially respond. Emotions allow for us to communicate with one another and to motivate ourselves. For instance, when we feel fear, we are likely to respond behaviorally. We may get ready to attack or flee. Without this emotion, we become vulnerable to harm.

There are two universal emotions: positive and negative affect. They are not necessarily opposites of each other. Among these two categories, are specific emotions. Researchers have identified 6 fundamental emotions that are thought to exist universally among cultures:

  • Anger : an emotion to protect and defend our self and loved ones. Anger can range from irritability on one end of the spectrum to rage,
  • Sadness: to attract help from our social network and is often a precipitator of loss,
  • Fear: to survive,
  • Surprise: to stiffen up and freeze, camouflaging one’s self in the environment,
  • Disgust: to avoid sickness,
  • Joy/Happiness: to attract others, to help us to grow, and to motivate us,

In addition to the main primary emotions, there are secondary emotions, such as jealousy, guilt and curiosity. When emotions are combined, they can lead to more complex emotions, such as jealously. Think of when you were jealous; you may have experienced a combination of emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, and resentment. Interestingly, emotional expression can vary by culture. Thus, emotions are hard wired by nature and modified by environment (nurture).

Often, identifying what emotion(s) you are experiencing can be challenging. Mindfulness is one way to help you examine your emotional state. By closely paying attention to your internal experience, you have the chance to understand your emotions. We often are so focused on changing our emotions, such as fear and sadness, that we don’t recognize the importance of why we are having these emotions. Becoming more aware and accepting of our emotional experience can allow us to have more flexibility in the way we respond to them.