Emotions: what they are, who invented them, and why they are so important
Emotions are one of our Superpowers, but they are perhaps the most mistreated, undervalued, and controversial ones we have. They are simultaneously a potential source of strength and weakness. Emotions are at the heart of every path toward growth, innovation, and change, and they are essential when it comes to expanding our various comfort zones.
Increasing our awareness of our emotional state, learning to recognize the emotions we feel, expanding our emotional vocabulary by giving a name and a meaning to our emotions and those of the people around us is to take ourselves back. It makes us feel good. The concept of emotions, as we know them today, are just 190 years old—and they are not even as universal as we might think.
The invention of emotions
“No one really felt emotions before about 1830.”—Tiffany Watt Smith
This is one of the opening sentences of the introduction to Tiffany Watt Smith‘s book The Book of Human Emotions. From Ambiguphobia to Umpy— 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel.
If you thought you knew all about emotions after watching the Disney Pixar cartoon Inside Out, you’re wrong. Smith, who selected 154 emotional states, says that her list is a naturally incomplete collection—a definition “against those arguments that try to reduce the beautiful complexity of our inner lives into just a handful of cardinal emotions.”
I just read somewhere that there are more than six hundred books that talk about emotions, and I can’t imagine the numbers behind the digital universe made up of articles, blog posts, and famous phrases on the topic. This is just a quick consideration to manage your expectations about this article: my journey into the world of emotions has just begun, and you will find nothing in these lines that has not already been said, experimented with, or utilized before. In what follows you can expect to find food for thought, stimuli that I hope will trigger your curiosity to initiate your journey toward discovering a world that has fascinated generations of scholars, psychologists, philosophers, poets, and simple human enthusiasts like me.
When Smith says that “No one really felt emotions before about 1830,” she goes on to explain: “Instead, they felt other things—‘passions,’ ‘accidents of the soul,’ ‘moral sentiments’—and explained them very differently from how we understand emotions today.”
According to the author, two concepts of primary importance around emotions were born in the Victorian age, the period of English history that included in the long reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. The first, of Darwinian derivation, considers emotions as physical reactions to evolution. The second, of Freudian derivation, states that emotions are influenced by the unconscious mind.
It was Darwin who argued, in The Expression of Emotions in Humans and Animals (published in 1872), that emotions were not only pre-established reactions to a stimulus but the results of the evolutionary processes that lasted millions of years. Darwin argued that we survived as a species thanks to emotions and that they were functions as important as breathing or digesting.
It was Freud, on the other hand, around 1890, who gave more depth and complexity to the theme of emotions by questioning the purely scientific approach that only involved body and brain, supporting the importance of considering the influence of the mind or psyche. It is also thanks to this work that today we look at emotions as something that we can at least try to manage and as something we can be aware of or not.
“Emotions might be shaped by our cultures, as well as by our bodies and minds.”—Tiffany Watt Smith
In this quote I find all the power of the interaction between external changes—what happens in a world that now changes not only faster but also with a global magnitude, like technological changes of the movement on climate change or—and internal changes—what happens on a personal level to ourselves—that led me to create Comfort Zone Shake-Up.
In this quote I find the whole spectrum of reactions that people of different cultures, different places, and different ages have to my pink hair!
The culture in which we live, in addition to our bodies and our minds, shapes our emotions. Different cultures give different values to different emotions. The variability is a horizontal variability—which concerns the richness of the emotional vocabulary of different cultures—and is at the same time a vertical variability, in which different cultures can have more or less extensive scales of intensity to measure a given emotion.
The difference—this emotional variability—is a value itself. The journey to discover the characteristics of different cultures and peoples should be approached as such: a fascinating journey to learn, understand, get rich, and grow.
Too many times we stop at appearances. Too many times we are happy with the thin aspect of things when we should be more interested in the thick aspect.
Thick and thin description of an emotion
What is the difference between a blink and a wink? To explain it, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the 1970s referred to the concepts of “thin description” and “thick description.” The thin description to explain the difference between blinking and winking refers to the physical nature—linked to the muscular contractions of the eyelid. The thick description explains the same difference by analyzing the cultural context within which the action could occur.
Whether we are explaining the difference between a blink and a wink or dealing with the different situations of everyday life, without context we have no way of seeing the complete picture. And it is in the complete picture, in the totality, that we can truly capture an emotion.
What is an emotion?
“Deep inside each of our temporal lobes is a tear-shaped structure called the amygdala. Neuroscientists call this the ‘command center’ of our emotions. It assesses stimuli from the outside world, deciding whether to avoid or approach. Approaching emotions as first and foremost biological facts misrepresents what an emotion actually is.”—Tiffany Watt Smith
About the precise meaning of the word “emotion,” psychologists and philosophers have been wondering for over a century. Among the various definitions that I have met so far, I like to recall that of Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 reference text on the subject of emotional intelligence: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. According to Goleman, an emotion refers to:
“A feeling and its distinctive thoughts, psychological and biological states, and the range of propensities to act.”
At the end of Goleman’s definition I find again a confirmation for Comfort Zone Shake-Up, “that propensity to act” that I consider the starting point of its expansion. And it is precisely for this reason that a fundamental chapter of Comfort Zone Shake-Up is related to emotions.
Expanding our Comfort Zone Using Emotions
Emotions are the heart of every path of growth, innovation, and change. Emotions are fundamental when it comes to expanding our various comfort zones. There are hundreds of emotions, and they have different degrees of intensity, nuances, and variations; they have different meanings in different cultures and at different historical moments.
This makes me think of some questions inspired by Lois Lane’s article on the world’s need for Superman.
Have you ever thought about how much you know about emotions and about what and how you feel? What if I tell you that you have a couple of minutes to make a list of the emotions that you feel right now? How many emotions are you able to mention? How many ways to express positive feelings do you know? What about negative emotions? How do you feel when you are facing something new and unexpected?
These are just some of the questions we can ask ourselves about emotions. These are simple questions whose answers are to be found in the splendid complexity of our inner lives. These are questions for which there are no right or wrong answers, pre-packaged or one-size-fits-all. These are answers for which it is worth living, discovering, and experimenting.
Increasing awareness of our emotional state, learning to recognize the emotions we are feeling, and expanding our emotional vocabulary by giving a name and meaning to our emotions and the emotions of those around us is not only fundamental—it is a sort of forced passage to take ourselves back and makes us feel good.