We have to face our emotions. The wide range of emotions shape our experiences and who we are in good and complex ways. Pixar’s recent film, Inside Out, illustrates the beautiful mess that is our emotions. In it we see the emotions personified, vying for the right way to handle a situation, one taking over when the others can see no other way, pushing in at times. Joy’s childlike optimism runs the show until the time comes when Joy can no longer be the solo player, allowing the other emotions only supporting roles. There comes a time when sadness is inevitable, and facing sadness, facing the situation for the badness of the situation has merit, and empathy can heal us enough to help us move forward, returning us to joy.
The film highlights the fundamental emotions that come with being human: joy, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust. Research has shown these to be universal, recognizable face expression across cultures. Joy is the optimist, and Sadness is the pessimist. Anger interprets situations as slights to self, judging negatively the motives of others. Disgust finds initial dislike in all things, but is also able to finely tune the subject’s taste to a more refined pallet, be it a good outfit or aversion to broccoli. Fear creates caution, but also panic. Part of the process in the film, is the move on the part of Joy to understand the role and value of Sadness, who from the beginning seems only to thwart Joy’s efforts at making the subject happy.
Perennial philosophers referred to these emotions as passions, movements within us that happen separate from our will. I do not choose to be sad when a bad thing happens. We first experience the passion and then use our minds and desire to either advance, retreat or reshape the emotion. I choose how I react to sadness.
Emotion occurs as a learned response or as an innate reaction to a stimulus. We experience a natural disgust to large numbers of maggots. We have a natural fear of snakes. Hormones can move emotion within us. The flux of hormones for women at moments in her menstrual cycle may cause unexplained anger or sadness. Oxytocin is release when a person looks at or holds an infant, creating a sensation of joy.
Since we share emotions with animals, it is our ability to make a choice in reaction to the emotion that separates us from the animals. Men in a sudden state of anger are expected to refrain from attacking another person. People are expected to choose a better way when attracted to someone who is not their spouse. We see the raw emotion and inability to regulate in toddlers. In the face of a toddler tantrum, one may think, “if only he could understand.” But understanding comes with age and maturity.
When we gain that understanding, our emotions can become powerful tools. As the body uses pain to tell us something is wrong, so the “negative” emotions can communicate the same. Disgust to protect us from poison, fear to protect us from danger. There are experiences in life that are unfair. Anger can motivate us to act for the sake of justice. Sadness can push us reach out to others.
If only it were so simple. Experiences may condition us to overreact or under react to situations, like nerves deadened through trauma. We may not experience fear when we ought, and be more risky than is wise. In the coming posts, I discuss each emotion in greater depth, how it can go array and ways to manage the emotion when the reaction it motivates is less than virtuous. Stay tuned.