Are emotions just data?

January 25, 2020

What is the point of having feelings?

Obviously there has to be some reason behind emotions like joy and anger otherwise we would have evolved away from them over the last fifty millennia. We would be blank slates interacting numbly with the world around us. Unfazed, uninterested and unemotional.

Instead we are full up with love, anger, happiness, resentment, boredom, jealousy and a whole host of other emotions spanning the spectrum of incredibly positive to incredibly destructive.

So if we’re meant to have these feelings, what should we be using them for?

In general we use emotions to tell us what we want to avoid (fear, loathing, disgust) and what we want more of (love, enjoyment, pleasure). But how can we understand and use these feelings to better understand ourselves?

Well, as Sue Langley points out, emotions are just data. They are a feedback loop about how we are experiencing the world around us. And by consciously considering what those feelings are telling us we can better navigate that world.

Let’s use the example of Ned. Ned is feeling sad. Now he could just try to make this feeling go away by eating some pizza, having a drink, or watching a movie but that wouldn’t really take away the sadness. Rather it would temporarily push away the feelings, distracting him from what’s really going on.

Most likely that sad feeling is just waiting there, tucked behind the beer and pizza (and guilt). The reason is that “sad” isn’t just an object you pick up and move to a different place. It’s a piece of data telling you something isn’t right. That you aren’t liking something about your environment, your relationships or your actions.

That thing might be obvious (Ned might have just broken up with his girlfriend), or it might be more obscure (he has never felt like he was accepted by other people) but until he sits down and takes a good hard look at that data it will keep on popping up.

So how can this help you? Well rather than just blindly accepting emotions or trying to avoid or seek them, consider instead what those feelings are telling you. Why do you love that person so much? Why does swimming make you feel so peaceful? What about your work is frustrating? Why is that colleague making you so angry? By taking that data and understanding it you can actually start to figure out what makes you feel positive, and what you want less of.

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