What are emotions?

What are emotions? Feeling Magnets


Emotions have been described in many different ways and from many different angles. There is no simple one line definition that satisfies everyone. There are actually hundreds of definitions. It’s quite a complex subject. Fehr and Russell (1984) wrote "everyone knows what an emotion is, until asked to give a definition. Then, it seems no one knows." So no worries if so far you struggled to really understand emotions. Scientists find it difficult too. 

Feelings vs. Emotions

Technically there is also a difference between feelings and emotions. Today scientists are working hard to clearly distinguish between the two because until the 20th Century most theories of emotions were actually theories of feeling. For those of you who are interested, feelings are how we consciously experience emotions. Outside the scientific world, most people use the words feelings and emotions interchangeably, and so do we here at Feeling Magnets and in this article. 

So what are feelings / emotions?

Emotions are responses from our body to something that is going on in our minds or around us. These responses are quite unconscious (we don’t think about them, they just happen) but we can feel them in our bodies - a change in our heartbeat, feeling sweaty, short of breath, tightness in the chest, etc.

It’s interesting though, that we only have a feeling or emotion when it’s related to something that is important to us. If we don’t attach meaning to our thoughts or the situations we are in, then we don’t feel that emotion.

Likewise, we also don’t feel any emotions if we don’t know about something. A terrible event could have happened, but until we find out about it, we have no emotions related to that event. So the attention we put on something, whether conscious or unconscious, is also a key factor to our experiencing of emotions.

In short, there are three ingredients that lead us to feeling an emotion:

So emotions are a sort of “feedback system”. They make us aware of things that are important to us and that are relevant in that moment. Along with emotions we also have urges to act in a certain way (ex. feeling angry might come with the urge to yell). These urges are suggestions as to how we could act and from here on, we can choose if we want to take on the suggestion (yell) or how else we want to act (walk out, take a deep breath, calm down and then discuss).


To know more about why we have different emotions, check out What is the purpose of our feelings and How to understand your emotions.

To learn more about emotions, subscribe to the newsletter at the top right of this page.

Armony, J., Vuilleumier, P.,  (2013). The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience, Cambridge University Press, Secition 1: Introduction to Human Affective Neuroscience, 1. Models of Emotion: The Affective Neuroscience Approach, David Sander
Gross, J., (2014). Handbook of Emotion Regulation, The Guilford Press, Chapter 1, Emotion Regulation Conceotual and Empirical Foundations
Putnam (1994). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, revised Penguin edition, 2005

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