Updated: Aug 5, 2020
Have you ever stopped to wonder, why do we have feelings? Do they benefit us in any way? Why is it that when we're sad, listening to sad music actually makes us feel better? Why is it that when we're angry, having someone tell us to calm down only makes us worse? The answer lies in our evolution. Humans are innately social beings and our social nature is what made us so successful as a species. Far before we learned to communicate through words, we were communicating through our emotions. Our right brain, which predominantly processes emotion communicates implicitly several times faster than our left, logical and language based brain does explicitly.
Have you ever completely misunderstood what someone said? This may have been because you had already processed the emotional content of their communication (or your interpretation of their emotion) and not even heard the words they said. This is more likely to happen when we are tired or stressed or already feeling strong emotions. So often, when we are talking to someone, they have already subconsciously interpreted what we are trying to say before we even say a word! And even when we do talk, the tone of our voice is a much more powerful communicator than our words.
So, we know that our feelings help us to communicate with others. But what do our feelings tell us? And what benefit do they have? I'm going to outline a few common emotions here and their purpose and benefit, as far as we know.
Happiness: we feel happiness and it's associated emotions at times of plenty, when our needs are met and we can relax enough to enjoy the simple things in life. The chemicals associated with happiness: dopamine and serotonin have been found to improve immune functioning, therefore leading to a longer and healthier life. So, we can surmise that happiness tells us that our needs are met and we can relax and thrive in our lives. It also tells others around us that there are no immediate threats to our safety and it makes others more likely to trust us and want to share that happiness. The other chemical associated with happiness, oxytocin, is associated with connection and is secreted in our brain when we have positive connections with other humans. Another way of looking at the purpose of happiness as a feeling, is to consider the purpose of every species: to survive. Bonding with others has helped us to survive as a species, so people who feel happy when they connect with others were traditionally more likely to survive, and therefore this has evolved as an important human characteristic.
Fear: another one of the more well-known emotions and most of us are familiar with the fight, flight or freeze responses. Fear is an adaptive emotion that tells us and others that there is danger. It mobilises our energy and improves our senses to allow us to quickly react and run away or fight if we need to. Of course most of us are familiar with the long term effects of fear (anxiety) and stress. What helps us survive in the short term has long term impacts on our health and immune system. If you're feeling anxiety, fear, irritability or a sense of dread long term (more than a few days), then it is really important to talk to someone and work through these feelings.
Sadness: This is a little bit more difficult to understand the benefits of. It is reasonably clear that sadness helps us to communicate to others that we need help and support. However it is less clear how sadness might benefit us. There are many theories. Some say that sadness tells us that we need to slow down and rest and conserve energy. This could be an evolutionary response to losing our safety and protection, for example in the case of a relationship break up or the death of someone close. The body sensations that occur when we are sad tell us we need to stop and take note of how we are feeling, and also ask for help. Crying is a very beneficial response to sadness as tears help us to re-regulate our stress hormones and bring our hormones back into balance. This is why we often feel so much better after crying.
Anger: anger is tied in with the fight, flight or freeze response, similarly to fear (above). Anger can help us defend ourselves if attacked, but helps us to communicate to others a need that may not have been met. Anger is often labelled a negative emotion, however it plays an important role. Often anger tells us that there has been an injustice or that we have been treated badly. If we suppress this feeling then we won't give ourselves a chance to work through this situation to come to a positive outcome. It's important to explore this feeling and try to understand where it is coming from, then decide if we want to take action or if we want to let it go. Like fear, above, if left unchecked, long term anger can have negative effects on the immune system.
Overall, our emotions are not as scary and overwhelming as we might think. If we let ourselves feel and express them and develop healthy coping strategies, they will make us more rounded. Even if we wanted to avoid them, we can't so we have to find a way to live with them as best we can.