Where do emotions come from, and where do they go?

If we always act on our emotions, we are servants, not masters.  Photo by Andre Guerra on Unsplash

There is a wide range of experiences that we commonly call emotions.  They include happiness, sadness, joy, despair, gratitude, and anger.  We can extend the boundaries to include feeling proud, humiliated, serene, upset, interested, bored, hopeful, fearful, inspired, dull, in awe, unimpressed, loving, and hating.  In fact, we can spin the concept of emotion outwards until it has fine nuances – we can be mildly miffed, we can be ‘meh’, we can be ‘whatever’.


If you ask ‘what are emotions?’, different scientists will give you different answers.  This is partly because emotions straddle so many different disciplines.  When we are happy, our bodies change, so biologists can get involved.  Also our brains and nervous systems change, so neurologists can have a view.  Our minds and attitudes change, so psychologists can also develop theories of emotion.  They are entwined in the way we see our world, so philosophers can welcome themselves into the arena.  They are subtle, and affect the stories we tell – so narrators, film makers, and artists can be expected to play with them.

Maybe we could say that human emotion is a state or flow of consciousness, with the potential to affect our actions.  When we are joyous, we are in a state or flow which takes our behaviour in a certain direction.  Our body is likely to emanate body signals characteristic of that emotion (for instance, we may ‘jump for joy’).  Our thoughts may spin themselves in certain patterns characteristic of that emotion (for example, we may find it momentarily easier to love our friends).


One way of understanding where our emotions come from, is to take an evolutionary perspective.  Over time, surviving individuals and species developed cyclical patterns of being, responses to the environment which proved self-perpetuating.  Perhaps the protection of loving carers gave children a better chance of survival.  Perhaps the protection of angry carers, who fought off enemies, did the same.

You and I have bodies which carry the legacy of this development.  That we divide them into positive and negative emotions, is partly a function of the society we live in.  The emotions that are not useful any more, or that make life difficult for controllers may be called negative.  The ones that seem to provide peace may be called positive.  Where laws have replaced the function of anger (by giving recourse to third party justice that avoids confrontation), anger ceases to have its old function, and can feel like a useless limb.


There are perhaps two answers to where emotions go.

Firstly, they follow a natural course determined by the cycles that have been in place long before we were born.  Thus, we find that an angry outburst often works itself through to a kind of exhaustion, or else it results in a separation from the irritant that brings peace in itself.  If we watch animals, we can see evidence of similar cycles of emotion, in which confrontations end in temporary exhaustion, appeasement, or separation… only for the whole cycle to start again when biology allows.

Secondly, through awareness, emotions can be witnessed and allowed to pass through without such a desperate call to action.  A skilled meditator may be able to observe anger passing through their mind and body, and by remaining aware (or mindful), may be able to watch that anger disappear over the horizon of their mind for the time being.  The meditator has not had to fight anyone else to achieve this; they have peacefully observed the cycle, managed it, and let it through.

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Do I find my emotions hard to manage?

Am I locked into cyclical combat with my surroundings?  Am I alternately joyous and despairing, without much in between?

Perhaps I can learn to observe the flowing-through of my states of consciousness.  Perhaps I do not need to be locked into the evolutionary patterns of action and reaction that were useful at the time, but are not so useful now.

Perhaps I can learn a state of awareness that brings me freedom from the cycle of extremes.  Perhaps, through forms of meditation, I can avoid the constant need to play out my emotions on the social stage, with all the confusion and fighting this can engender.

Perhaps I do not have to be a victim of my evolutionary history, but can learn the art of mastery over my emotions.  Like a good cook, once I have mastered the raw ingredients, perhaps I can serve up, for myself and others, a really excellent personal experience.