I think that our emotional responses to stimuli are how the unconscious part of our mind exerts its power over us. Since when we consider events that are happening to us, our entire mind is engaged (however intensely or superficially), the unconscious is processing its own response in parallel with "what we are thinking" about them. Since it cannot take place directly in the play of our conscious thoughts, its output, its response, enters our consciousness as emotion.
This, simply, is why emotions are basically irrational - the unconscious mind has no rational ordering imposed upon it by the demands of experience and society (our conscious mind may not, either, we all know people like that!).
The reason that basic emotions seem to be "universal," in the sense that all people experience them to some degree in similar circumstances, is due to the basic "hard wired" nature of the brain. It may be incredibly "plastic" and open to the environmental experiences impressed upon it, but it still has basic techniques for laying down this information, for filing it as it were.
It is also likely that some of these physical traits of the basic brain structure limit certain kinds of unconscious paths to the conscious - and these may very well be the most "common," widely found and observes emotions. The ones we have the simplest names for, in other words.
While arguing about the commonality of emotions, it is very important to remember how non-universal they really are. Two people may agree, sort of, that a word for a certain emotion describes a similar thing in each of them. But upon examination and exploration of the topic, they could discover that the things in the world and their life that trigger this emotion are very different, and that they feel it with differing intensities, ans act on it in different ways. My favorite emotion, jealousy, has got to be the best example of this!
So, what does this mean? Emotions are an important component of how we experience life, and make our decisions about how we want our life to go. But they are the incoherent ramblings of a lunatic (your unconscious mind), interjected into what was a perfectly rational discussion (in your conscious mind) about the issue at hand.
Do we run away from that which makes us uncomfortable? That would certianly seem to make us happier, in the short term, but all we are doing is pandering to the sublime fears and unconfessed pain of our lost memories.
Should we try to increase the things we do that result in pleasant emotions? Considering that we are still doing exactly the same thing, probably not!
What our emotions do tell us that is useful is how our mind is organized, in the parts we do not have direct access to. In essence, our emotional responses give away the mnemonic tricks used by our unconscious to file away the stuff it gets stuck with. The things we could not or cannot face, the shocks, the traumas, and the things we just plain could not understand in our life.
Knowing this is a great wisdom! Use it well.
I think, also, that when we have decided that the contents of our unconscious are no longer running our lives, that our emotional responses will be more in tune with our own goals - that is, a pleasant emotion will probably coincide with an activity that is in line with how we want to live, and similarly for the unpleasant ones. In general, at least. There will always be hurdles to overcome, that is part of the fun of being alive!
© Huw Powell