Why do we have emotions? What are they for? With all the problems that can come from emotions, wouldn’t human beings be better off without them?
It is a truism to state that all livings things have needs that must be met in the environment if they are to survive. Whether we think about a daffodil, an oak tree, a bee, a mole, an elephant, a killer whale; each living thing will have its own specific needs for it to thrive. If they do not get what they need, they will become out of balance, start to suffer in some way, become increasingly unhealthy and eventually die. It follows then that, if a living organism is not healthy there must be some need that is missing for whatever reason. This is an important starting point to be able to answer the questions above.
If we classify emotions under the broader heading of ‘feelings’, we can see that feelings are designed to get our attention. They direct our attention towards a possible unmet need. For example, if we have a feeling of hunger, we may need to eat. If we feel something brush past our ankle, it might be a poisonous snake or deadly spider that we need to evade. If we feel pain somewhere in our body, we may need to pay close attention to it as it may be something serious that could ultimately have serious consequences if not treated. As you can see, the operative words here are ‘possible’, ‘might’ and ‘may’ because these feelings could have other explanations that are entirely harmless. That feeling of hunger may have been triggered by a picture of some food, but actually, we only ate an hour ago, so we know we do not need food just yet. That sensation of something brushing past our ankle is actually just a bit of grass so we can ignore it completely. That pain we feel may have a perfectly obvious explanation and once we remove what is causing the pain, we can forget about it.
So, emotions are there to direct our attention towards a need that may have to be met. And that’s where things can go wrong. It is vital that we are fully aware of the level of seriousness to which each feeling is directing our attention and then deal with it appropriately. If we eat every time we have a feeling of hunger, we could end up consuming more than our body needs to be healthy. If, every time some grass brushes our ankle, we react as if it is a deadly snake or poisonous spider, we will have excessive hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, flooding our systems. Again, if we react to every pain as if it is something serious, we will have excessive stress hormones which will only worsen our problems.
Human beings feel contented, calm, secure and happy when they feel their life is in balance. This is known as ‘homeostasis’. Our brains are constantly monitoring our bodily systems to check if everything is in balance to try and keep us in homeostasis. When something starts to get out of balance, our brain will send out a feeling so that we pay attention to it and take action to get it back into balance. Human beings have the most advanced brains in the universe (as far as we know!) which means that, consequently, we have the most advanced set of needs. Our needs are so complex, compared to other living things, that there is a much higher chance of things going wrong. The balance is much finer to maintain.
So, how does it go wrong? If our brain picks up that something is out of balance, it will send out a feeling to direct our attention to make us do something to get ourselves back into balance. If our reaction to the feeling is out of proportion, this will take us further out of balance. If we get further out of balance, we will have more feelings to drive us to get ourselves back into balance but then, if our reactions are still ill-informed, inappropriate or excessive, we will get more and more out of balance, and so on. We get stuck in a negative loop. So, the irony is that, even though we are trying to keep ourselves in balance, if we get it wrong, we will actually continue to take ourselves further and further out of balance.
So, how can we avoid getting stuck in this negative loop? If we have good understanding of the whole process, we improve our chances of getting it right. Before we can start to get a good understanding of the process, it is important to have some knowledge of what our human needs actually are.
Our human needs
This is an area that we could spend a lot of time discussing and considering but, for the sake of this article, we can take as read, that the decades – if not centuries – of scientific work on this topic has culminated in the following. Whilst we may be able to argue over the semantics of the following list, we should be able to see that all our needs can be classified somewhere under the following categories.
NB: The key word when thinking about our needs is balance – we can have too little or too much of anything.
- Unpolluted environment (air, water, soil, etc.)
- Nutrients (air, water, fats, proteins, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals)
- Physical comfort
- Movement (exercise)
- Rest/sleep (to recover, refresh, refuel, repair, rebuild)
- To feel secure (both in our environment and in our sense of self)
- To have a sense of control over our life
- To receive and give attention
- To feel part of a wider community – a sense of belonging to the group
- To feel acknowledged, valued and respected – a sense acceptance in the group
- Friendship – a connection with others where we can be our true selves
- A feeling of achievement and competence
- To feel our life has some meaning and purpose
- To have time alone to think
If we are getting too little – or too even too much – of any given need, we will not feel right, we will feel out of balance. Reversing that logic means that, when we don’t feel good, for whatever reason, it is because there is a need that is not being met.
Let us now turn our attention back to our emotions. This is where I want to explain the title of this article: ‘Live with EASE’.
EASE stands for
People who are staying in balance most of the time – and none of us can expect to stay in balance all the time – and are managing to remain fairly stable and content, employing a range of coping strategies where necessary, will be mostly already living with a natural understanding of EASE.
(NB. It may be important to bear in mind that all of us are susceptible to becoming overwhelmed at times and all of us could do with more knowledge, understanding and skills to improve our everyday lives. It is also very important to recognise that we never reach a point in our lives where we have learned everything we need to know – there is no final destination. We are always on a learning journey, so it is important to accept the place we have arrived at, whilst always heading for a better place. In that way, we can learn to enjoy the journey.)
So, what is the best way to live with emotions? As already mentioned, emotions are there to direct our attention towards a possible unmet need so, first, we need to have a good understanding and awareness of our emotions and how they are trying to help us stay in balance. We then need a range of effective strategies to deal with our feelings. The outcomes we can expect will then depend upon our level of awareness and the quality of our strategies. If our awareness is low and our strategies are poor, we should not then expect good outcomes. If we improve our awareness and strategies, we can then expect better outcomes.
The following table contains examples of what good and bad practice might look like. It is, by no means, an exhaustive list nor am I saying that every element should be present. I would also state that, as complex and unique individuals, we do not just fit into one category. We will all probably relate to elements of both sides depending on circumstances. What I am putting forward is that we will be able to maintain a healthier balance, get our needs met more effectively and expect better outcomes if we continually aim to increase our awareness and improve our strategies.
As the diagram hopefully shows, when awareness is low and strategies are poor, we can expect negative and unpleasant outcomes. If we get negative and unpleasant outcomes, we are going to have a feeling of stress. We get feelings of stress when we are feeling overwhelmed and struggling to cope – this is the very opposite of ‘ease’; this is dis-ease. Stress is disease. If we are feeling stressed, then we are right back at the start and the whole process continues to loop until the break the cycle. We break the cycle by following the advice on the right. When we increase our awareness and improve our strategies, we can expect the best outcomes. Notice also how the positive loop is different: when we are getting this right, we will have a feeling of ease. If we have a feeling of ease, we can continue to expect the best outcomes. If we are getting the best outcomes, we will be getting our needs met; if we are getting our needs met we will have a feeling of ease.
The final word:
Get your needs met in balance and live with EASE!
(Emotion – awareness – strategies – expectations)