Emotions can play an important role in how you think and behave. The emotions you feel each day can compel you to take action and influence the decisions you make about your life, both large and small.
Emotions can be short-lived, such as a flash of annoyance at a co-worker, or long-lasting, such as enduring sadness over the loss of a relationship. But why exactly do we experience emotions? What role do they serve?
Where Do Emotions Come From?
Emotions are influenced by a network of interconnected structures in the brain that make up what is known as the limbic system. Key structures including the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the limbic cortex play a pivotal role in emotions and behavioral responses.
The Three Components of Emotion
In order to truly understand emotions, it is important to understand the three critical components of an emotion. Each element can play a role in the function and purpose of your emotional responses.
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1. Subjective component: How you experience the emotion
2. Physiological component: How your body reacts to the emotion
3. Expressive component: How you behave in response to the emotion
Emotions Can Motivate You to Act
When faced with a nerve-wracking exam, you might feel a lot of anxiety about whether you will perform well and how the test will impact your final grade. Because of these emotional responses, you might be more likely to study.
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Since you experienced a particular emotion, you had the motivation to take action and do something positive to improve your chances of getting a good grade.
You also tend to take certain actions in order to experience positive emotions and minimize the probability of feeling negative emotions. For example, you might seek out social activities or hobbies that provide you with a sense of happiness, contentment, and excitement. On the other hand, you would probably avoid situations that might potentially lead to boredom, sadness, or anxiety.
Emotions increase the likelihood that you will take an action. When you are angry, you are likely to confront the source of your irritation. When you experience fear, you are more likely to flee the threat. When you feel love, you might seek out a partner.
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Emotions Help You Avoid Danger
Naturalist Charles Darwin was one of the earliest researchers to scientifically study emotions. He believed that emotions are adaptations that allow both humans and animals to survive and reproduce.
He suggested that emotional displays could also play an important role in safety and survival. If you encountered a hissing or spitting animal, it would clearly indicate that the creature was angry and defensive, leading to you back off and avoid possible danger.
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Emotions can also prepare the body to take action. The amygdala, in particular, is responsible for triggering emotional responses that prepare your body to cope with things like fear and anger.
Sometimes this fear can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, which leads to a number of physiological responses that prepare the body to either stay and face the danger or flee to safety.
Emotions serve an adaptive role by prompting you to act quickly and take actions that will maximize your chances of survival and success.
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Emotions Can Help You Make Decisions
Your emotions have a major influence on the decisions you make, from what you decide to have for breakfast to which candidates you choose to vote for in political elections.
Researchers have also found that people with certain types of brain damage affecting their ability to experience emotions also have a decreased ability to make good decisions.
Even in situations where you believe your decisions are guided purely by logic and rationality, emotions play a key role. Emotional intelligence, or your ability to understand and manage emotions, has been shown to play an important role in decision-making.
Research has found that experiencing fear increases perceptions of risk, feeling disgusted makes people more likely to discard their belongings, and feeling joy or anger causes people to leap into action.
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Emotions Help Others Understand You Better
When you interact with other people, it is important to give clues to help them understand how you are feeling. These cues might involve emotional expression through body language, such as various facial expressions connected with the particular emotions you are experiencing.
In other cases, it might involve directly stating how you feel. When you tell friends or family members that you are feeling happy, sad, excited, or frightened, you are giving them important information that they can then use to take action.
Research suggests that people experience positive emotions 2.5 times more frequently than they do negative emotions.
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Emotions Allow You to Understand Others
Just as your own emotions provide valuable information to others, the emotional expressions of those around you also give a wealth of social information. Social communication is an important part of your daily life and relationships, and being able to interpret and react to the emotions of others is essential.4
It allows you to respond appropriately and build deeper, more meaningful relationships with your friends, family, and loved ones. It also allows you to communicate effectively in a variety of social situations, from dealing with an irate customer to managing a hot-headed employee.
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Understanding the emotional displays of others gives us clear information about how we might need to respond in a particular situation.
By Kendra Cherry, MSEd and Medically reviewed by Amy Morin, LCSW
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