I think emotions are nothing more (or less) than chemical processes in the brain.
I have numerous friends who serve as living proof of this, as the happy beneficiaries of modern psychopharmacological science. People whose lives were dogged by the shadow of chronic depression, insomnia, and mood swings irrelevant to their environmental cues, are now able to remain in balance and enjoy productive (on their own terms) lives.
We have many emotions, and I want to add a fairly complete list of them here - can you all help by telling me what they are?
We seem to break them down largely into "negative" and "positive" ones, largely by whether they are pleasant or unpleasant to experience, but I feel this is an oversimplification. Many of them have a fairly direct and useful meaning, such as fear driving one to seek to escape or ameliorate a dangerous situation, or depression over an unfortunate life circumstance impelling the sufferer to seek a solution, to work their way through the trauma and thus become wiser, stronger and happier as a result. Likewise pleasant emotions, while indicating behaviour or experience that one might wish to repeat, can be negative in their nature. The overwhelming feelings of a new love can drive out the rational process by which two people can get to actually know one another better and learn to accept as mere humans their new lover, for example.
Emotions can also be out of proportion to their environmental causes, or even (at the entry point to psychological illness) not relevant at all to the actual experiences of the individual. Extreme responses to actual stimuli can sometimes just be an indicator of a particarly sensitive personality, but can also be the tip of the iceberg of neurotic issues that amplify certain type of experience - thus the emotion is also a reaction to the past trauma and not just the present.
Some emotions are best acted on - fear, for instance, as noted above. While not ordinarily thought of as an emotion, physical pain is best acted upon or examined for its source in order to prevent further injury from its cause. Others are best simply dealt with - I think, for instance, that jealousy, while at times a powerful and driving force, is best worked through in one's mind and in conversation with one's trusted friends. Acting on jealousy almost always produces unwanted results - just look at poor Othello!
Is it desireable to live a life more densely populated by emotions experienced as pleasant? Is it even possible? It is certainly a truism that one cannot feel the joy of love without being open to the pains of loneliness or abandonment. (In fact, I think it is a requirement for those who seek loving relationships that they be capable of taking this emotional risk without promise of reward.) A happy life. A life full of pleasant or ecstatic experiences is more likely, in my opinion, to be the reward for the person who is able to selectively intellectualize their emotions. This involves learning how to "sit outside" the unpleasant emotions, to better "see oneself through them," understanding their source and observing their impact on oneself (yeah right - a rubuttal!). At the same time, the individual must not lose the ability to fully participate in their pleasant emotional spaces - the process must not be allowed to run ahead of itself and isolate one from all emotions. This requires a fairly high degree of self knowledge and the eradication of neurotic systems which protect one form pain by numbing one to all feeling regardless of its nature or quality.
Another feature, since as I said, I think that emotions are simply electrochemical arrangements of brain processes in reaction to the environment and ones subjective experience of it, is in how we choose to evaluate our experiences. Often, we choose to feel a painful emotion because of the way we let ourselves (or can't help but make ourselves) think about it. I believe one version of this is called "running the tapes." Since our brain chemistry is affected by the outside world and our inner processes of thought, it follows that our thoughts, and the actions that follow, can be used to manipulate our later emotional repsonses.
This is not as simple as "thinking happy thoughts," although that certainly can help! It is more a matter, I think, of observing ourselves and our reactions to our lifes events and seeking over time to increase the sort of activity that brings us pleasure and decrease that which brings us pain. Along the way we can also come up with ways to minimise the pain or discomfort of some situations by growing to be capable of handling them better.
In the long run, your emotional life (or at least its overall progresses or regresses) will reflect the amount of understanding we come to of ourselves as general examples of humans and as individuals, and the effort we are willing to expend on this process.
10/18/00 - 3 AM
© Huw Powell