Formula for Emotion

By | August 15, 2009

As people, we all experience emotions to various degrees and in a variety of ways. Though this is so, it seems like we generally don’t have a good grasp on why we feel the way we do. We typically externalize our emotions, seeing them as the inevitable result of events outside of our control: other people’s actions are to blame or it’s our circumstances which are at fault. While these things may play a role, we miss the fact that much of our emotional state has to do with us as opposed to the situation we’re in. This is important to understand if we seek to change our feelings. If we address the wrong problem (externalities) when the issues are actually within us, we won’t find the change that we seek.

To help us understand our feelings, I came up with a sort of formula for emotions:

emotion = held beliefs ÷ reality as perceived + biochemical/physiological state + one’s social environment

First of all, I recognize that one’s biochemical/physiological state has an effect on emotion. The beliefs vs. reality part of the equation should be easy enough to understand with some explanation. The easiest way to explain is with an illustration. Say you own a car. You believe that if you did not have a car, it would be detrimental to your life. You believe that you wouldn’t be able to attend social functions or make necessary errands. Maybe you would even lose your job. This is a held belief. Now, say one day you go out to the parking lot and can’t find your car—it’s been stolen! This is your reality as you perceive it. Now, put those two together and imagine how it would make you feel… probably not very good!

Now, here’s where things get interesting. You may have these beliefs and perceptions but this doesn’t mean that they’re right. Continuing with our example, some cities have good public transportation systems. You may find that it isn’t too difficult to get around even without a car. It may even be cheaper! Or perhaps people offer to give you rides. In other words, your belief could be askew: not owning a car may not be as bad as you thought. How would that change your feelings?

When looking at reality (or your circumstances/situation), “as perceived” is a critical part of the equation. For instance, maybe you parked your car in a different place than you remembered. In other words, your car is not stolen at all! Again, how would that make you feel differently? You should be able to see the important difference between the reality (car not stolen, just in a different location) vs. reality as perceived (car is stolen). Now the illustration of the car is a rather simplified one, but I believe you can see the application to other things, such as your work, relationships, etc.

The beliefs/reality part of the equation gives some explanation to the “power of positive thinking” camp. If you can change your beliefs and perceptions, that will make an impact on how you feel. However, that’s not the only part of the equation. I believe that different people are affected more by one part of the equation than the other. In other words, some people are more affected by the mental side of the equation, and are more able to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”, or improve their feelings by putting effort into positive thinking. However this group shouldn’t look down upon nor criticize those who are more affected by physiology. Likewise the latter group shouldn’t despise all of the “positive thinking” talk.

Once again, I’ve learned that it is important to address the correct problem. If you have negative emotions because of your beliefs and/or perceptions, don’t expect taking a drug or changing your environment will fix the problem. If you have a real biochemical imbalance, and there are many people who do, no amount of positive thinking will help you. Finally, if there is a real, actual problem with your environment (meaning the situation you live in, primarily in relation to other people), such as being in an abusive relationship, changing your situation is the only solution.

Lastly, there is a feedback loop in the equation. That is to say, our feelings affect how we think, and even our physical state. This can make it difficult to turn the tide on our feelings, but once done, the results can help keep things moving in the same direction.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

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