What is Emotion?

A word about what I refer to under the rubric emotion, a term whose precise meaning psychologists and philosophers have quibbled over for more than a century. In its most literal sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines emotion as “any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion; any vehement or excited mental state.” I take emotion to refer to a feeling and its distinctive thoughts, psychological and biological states, and range of propensities to act. There are hundreds of emotions, along with their blends, variations, mutations, and nuances. Indeed, there are many more subtleties of emotion than we have words for.

Researchers continue to argue over precisely which emotions can be considered primary, the blue, red, and yellow of feeling from which all blends come, or even if there are such primary emotions at all. Some theorists propose basic families, though not all agree on them. The main candidates and some of the members of their families:

  • Anger: fury, outrage, resentment, wrath, exasperation, indignation, vexationm acrimony, annoyance, irritability, hostility, and, perhaps at the extreme, pathological hatred and violence.
  • Sadness: grief, sorrow, cheerlessness, gloom, melancholy, self-pity, loneliness, dejection, despair, and, when pathological, severe depression.
  • Fear: anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, concern, consternation, misgiving, wariness, qualm, edginess, dread, fright, terror; as a psychopathology, phobia and panic.
  • Enjoyment: happiness, joy, relief, contentment, bliss, delight, amusement, pride, sensual pleasure, thrill, rapture, gratification, satisfaction, euphoria, whimsy, ecstasy, and at the far edge, mania.
  • Love: acceptance, friendliness, trust, kindness, affinity, devotion, adoration, infatuation, agape.
  • Surprise: shock, astonishment, amazement, wonder
  • Disgust: contempt, disdain, scorn, abhorrence, aversion, distaste, revulsion.
  • Shame: guilt, embarrassment, chagrin, remorse, humiliation, regret, mortification, and contrition.

To be sure, this list does not resolve every question about how to categorize emotion. For example, what about blends such as jealousy, a variant of anger that also melds sadness and fear? And what of the virtues, such as hope and faith, courage and forgiveness, certainty and equanimity? Or some of the classic vices, feelings such as doubt, complacency, sloth, and torpor or boredom? There are no clear answers; the scientific debate on how o classify emotions continues.

The argument for the being a handful of core emotions hinges to some extent on the discovery by Paul Ekman, at the University of California at San Francisco, that specific facial expressions for four of them (fear, anger, sadness, enjoyment) are recognized by people in cultures around the world, including preliterate peoples presumably untainted by exposure to cinema or television, suggesting their universality. Ekman showed facial photos portraying expressions with technical precision to people in cultures as remote as the Fore of New Guinea, an isolated Stone Age tribe in the remote highlands, and found people everywhere recognized the same basic emotions. This universality of facial expressions for emotion was probably first noted by Darwin, who saw it as evidence the forces of evolution had stamped these signals in our central nervous system.

In seeking basic principles, I follow Ekman and others in thinking of emotions in terms of families or dimensions, taking the main families, anger, sadness, fear, enjoyment, love, shame, and so on, as cases in point for the endless nuances of our emotional life. Each of these families has a basic emotional nucleus at its core, with its relatives rippling out from there in countless mutations. In the outer ripples are moods, which, technically speaking, are more muted and last far longer than an emotion (while it’s relatively rare to be in the full hear of anger all day, for example, it is not that rare to be in a grumpy, irritable mood, in which shorter bouts of anger are easily triggered). Beyond moods are temperaments, the readiness to evoke a given emotion or mood that makes people melancholy, timid, or cheery. And still beyond such emotional dispositions are the outright disorders of emotion such as clinical depression or unremitting anxiety, in which someone feels perpetually trapped in a toxic state.

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