Psychology of Emotions

Psychology of Emotion. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Without emotions, wellness doesn’t exist; at least as we know wellness. The highest reward of living right is a felt experience of joy, not something fleeting but the encompassing warmth—a sense of wellness. Emotions are the center pieces of our existence, motivating, and providing richness to our lives. The psychology of emotion is psychological research focused on understanding how we feel, regulate, and share emotion and how these processes relate to wellbeing.

Emotions are a vital contributor to conscious experience. Yet, emotions are more complex than passing feelings. Emotions are an integrated coupling of feeling affect and conscious interpretation in response to experience.

What are Emotions?

​Daniel Goleman, a brain and science journalist, wrote in his best selling book Emotional Intelligence that “​a view of human nature that ignores the power of emotions is sadly shortsighted” (2005, location 352).

Goleman explains that when boiled down to the simplest element, emotions are “impulses to act.” Emotions are a biological reaction to experience. Incoming data from our senses interact with our biological being. Our system leaps, pulls back, or freezes in response.

Susan David, a psychologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, describes emotions as “a neurochemical system that evolved to help us navigate life’s complex currents” (2016, location 65).

Emotion initiates adaptive response to changes in the environment. Our biological system is shocked by changes in our homeostatic balance and we adjust behavior to regain the balance.

Key Definition:

Emotions are a combination of physiological responses to inner and outer environments and cognitions deciphering and labeling the physiological arousal.

Emotions and Feelings

In science, research demands a breaking down of complexity for inspection of individual components. Emotional processes have undergone the same manipulations. The components then take on a life of their own, with disregard to the very defined role the single element plays in the much larger and complex system.

When writers, philosophers, or friends refer to emotion, often they a referring to a single element of emotion. As listeners (or researchers), we must continuously watch for these slights of hand that (unintentionally) misinform.

​Gabor Maté M.D, a Hungarian-Canadian physician and renowned expert on trauma, addiction, stress and childhood development, wrote “emotion is a concept we often invoke without a precise sense of its meaning.”  Maté explains, “emotions have several components” (2011, location 716).

The Flow of Life Energy

A common diction of elements in the emotional process is between feelings and emotions. Feeling (or feeling affect) is described as the bodily reaction to information flowing from the environment; and emotion is when the feeling affect breaks through awareness and we incorporate the feeling into cognitive thought. We give it context and a label. “I’m mad.”

However, even among the experts in the field, I have found different definitions for emotion and feeling. For instance, Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientists and neurologist, serving as a director at the University of Southern California’s brain research institute refers to the biological reactions as emotions and the awareness of the emotions as feeling. He writes, “the process does not stop with the bodily changes that define an emotion, however, the cycle continues, certainly in humans, and its next step is the feeling of the emotion in connection to the object that excited it, the realization of the nexus between object and emotional body state” (2005, location 2177).

For the most part, Damasio refers to emotions and feelings together—as in “emotion/feeling” states or processes.

Three Categories of Emotion

Ross Buck, a Professor of Communication and Psychology at the University of Connecticut divides the emotion—feeling continuum into three distinct categories (Emotions I, Emotions II, and Emotion III). He defines the differences by the level of conscious awareness of the emotion.

  • Emotion I is the biological bodily responses.
  • Emotion II is facial and vocal changes observable by others.
  • Emotion III is the self-awareness of felt experience. (2011, Maté, location 750).

For clarity, my writing refers to “feeling” (or feeling affect) as the biological reactions and “emotions” as the awareness and our personal cognitive definition of the felt experience. 

Creating Emotion from Feeling

Feeling Affect

As a child, I was raised in a strict religious family. I was taught that god answered prayers through feelings. If we asked and it was right, we would feel a “burning in our bosom.” I jokingly remarked, “I thought god answered my prayer but it was just heart burn from the pot roast.” 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my cute remark was amazingly perceptive. Feeling affect is a reactionary response to a perceived danger or a prayer. Lisa Feldman Barrett Ph.D., one of the most cited scientist in the world for her revolutionary work in psychology and neuroscience defines affect as “the general sense of feeling that comes from your body” (2020, location 1068). Feeling affect can be pleasant or unpleasant, caused by loving acceptance or—the pot roast.

Barrett explains, “affect is not emotion; your brain produces affect all the time, whether you’re emotional or not and whether you notice it or not.” She continues with her definition, “affect is the source of all your joys and sorrows. It makes some things profound or sacred to you and other things trivial or vile” (location 1072).

Susan David describes feeling affects as “the body’s immediate physical responses to important signals from the outside world.” She continues, “when our senses pick up information—signs of danger, hints of romantic interest, cues that we’re being accepted or excluded by our peers—we physically adjust to these incoming messages. Our hearts beat faster or slower, our muscles tighten or relax, our mental focus locks onto the threat or eases into the warmth of trusted companionship” (2016).

Awareness of the Feeling

Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, wrote that “interoceptive information influences, if not determines, our emotions.” However, he then adds that words powerfully impact the process. He describes “sensory information streaming toward your brain from both the outside world and your body can rapidly, powerfully, and automatically alter behavior” (2018, location 1550). 

Words are a powerful primer that frame sensory experience. Others often pre-orient our minds to define what we experience. However, our previous experiences can also serve as a primer for defining a feeling. “Words have power. They can save, cure, uplift, devastate, deflate, and kill. And unconscious priming with words influences pro- and antisocial behaviors” (location 1565).

Our culture, family, and friends prime our minds to define feeling affects. A child told that certain feelings are communications from god, quickly transforms the identified feeling affects as sacred and reacts accordingly.

Feeling Affects and Past Experience

Contrary to pop psychology, feeling affects are not pure. Many of our feeling reactions are learned. Dangers from the past intrude on the present—sometimes appropriate other times misguided. Yet, whether appropriate or not, the feeling affect is poignant and real, demanding an explanation and a label. Susan David explains “emotions dredge up old business, confusing our perception of what’s happening in the moment with painful past experiences” (2016, location 75).

​Our capacity to define affect is hampered by the complexity creating feeling. Diana Fosha Ph.D., a practicing psychotherapist in New York city explains, “biological and psychological, innate and learned, sensory and motor, information-processing and meaning-generating, experiential and expressive strands of experience all join in influencing how affect is construed and how it operates” (2000, location 188).

Dr. Lisa Barrett and Emotion Differentiation

Lisa Barrett’s work and research enlightens much of the process between feeling affect and emotion. She wrote that “your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences. Heart rate changes are inevitable; their emotional meaning is not” (2018, page 33).

The familiar lists of emotions are not perfectly defined biological events. Neurons fire, we feel, we examine context, pull from past, and stumble on a meaning.

Barrett says that emotions are more categories of emotional instances than biologically defined experiences. “We must consider that an emotion word, like ‘anger,’ does not refer to a specific response with a unique physical fingerprint but to a group of highly variable instances that are tied to specific situations. What we colloquially call emotions, such as anger, fear, and happiness, are better thought of as emotion categories, because each is a collection of diverse instances” (page 23).

Basic Emotions in Psychology of Emotions

While we all subjectively experience emotions and define them according to cultural learning, there are basic emotional groupings. While philosophers and scientist may argue over how many basic groups and which emotions to include or exclude, a few emotional groupings in the psychology of emotion regularly top most lists.

The six basic emotions are: fear, happiness, disgust, angry, sad, and surprised. Again, this is an arbitrary list, some emotions may be added, others may be taken out. There isn’t a biological fingerprint that determines a basic emotion. All lists are subjective interpretations for including one emotion and dismissing another.

Psychology of Emotion. Basic Emotions. Article image

Fear (Scared)

Fear is a survival reaction to threat. Our body biologically responds to threats through a fight or flight (or freeze) response. The heart rate quickens, muscles tighten, and attention narrows to focus on the threat. 


​Happiness is often defined as a pleasant emotional state, characterized by feelings of contentment and joy. Happiness is an approach emotion. When feeling incidents of happiness, we feel secure and are more likely to engage in opportunities. Happiness is one of the most sought after emotions. 


In the psychology of emotion, we characterize sadness by feelings of disappointment, grief, hopelessness, and disinterest. Accordingly, we often associate sadness with loss of something meaningful. Sadness signals to the body to pull back and disengage.

Mad (Angry)

Anger is a powerful emotion that can protect or destroy. Anger is often characterized by feelings of hostility and frustration. Generally, anger is a reaction to unfairness. When our rights are perceived to be violated, we often respond with anger.


Surprise is a physiological startle response to unexpected events. Our system needs a moment to reorient to surrounding events to determine a response.


A sense of revulsion to unsavory sights, smells, and tastes. Disgust also applies to reaction to people we despise. Disgust is a protective reaction to avoid toxicity.

Emotional Intelligence and The Psychology of Emotions

All these emotions can play a part in a flourishing life—if we properly integrate them into healthy action. A constant player in the psychology of emotion is the concept of Emotional Intelligence. Healthy integration of emotions into our lives is the essence of emotional intelligence. In 1990, Peter Salovey and John D. Meyer presented the emotional intelligence model. Emotional intelligence encompasses other popular topics on emotion such as self and emotional regulation. Salovey and Meyer divided emotional intelligence into five domains.


At a very basic level, emotional intelligence begins with awareness of feeling. Our moment to moment experience dynamically leaps and retreats as emotions flow through our veins, activating organs and tightening or relaxing muscles.

Amazingly, much of this occurs without poking the surface of consciousness. Skillfully identifying the presence of emotion allows for prediction of the impact the emotion will have on tone of voice, behaviors, and perceptions.

See Mindfulness for more on this topic

Managing Emotions

Emotions carry important messages. However, our impulsive reaction to the message is not always appropriate for the current circumstances. Emotional intelligence is weighing the message against the present context.

This is a skilled approach, requiring practice and reflection.

See Emotional Regulation for more on this topic

Marshaling Emotions to Obtain Goals

Emotions when functioning properly provide wisdom, pushing towards opportunity and pulling away from danger. Occasionally, wires get crossed. Abusive childhoods and traumatic experiences create an over-sensitivity to events. We become over protective and afraid. Healthy relationships with our emotions allows us to harness the emotion to motivate action in service of desirable goals.

​See Emotional Guidance System for more on this topic

Recognizing Emotions in Others

As we familiarize ourselves with our own emotional experience, we create a foundation to understand others. Certainly, others’ emotions are subjectively different. We can’t proclaim, “if they felt that way, they would have acted differently.” We can’t know their precise feeling experience or history with such emotions.

However, we can gain a strong enough foundation to explore their emotions, knowing they are experiencing feelings that are behind their actions. As we make room for emotions, and recognize others expressing emotions, we can minimize our inappropriate reactions.

​See Emotions and Empathy for more on this topic

Managing Emotions in Relationships

I’m going to jump straight to the point. It is not our responsibility to make a partner feel good. However, we can be of great assistance in emotional regulation. Loving partners become an additional resource in regulating each other’s emotions—not squelching or dismissing; but supporting.

​See Emotional Intimacy for more on this topic

A Few Final Thoughts on the Psychology of Emotions​

At Psychology Fanatic, we have spent thousands of hours exploring the psychology of emotion because of the central role emotions play in our lives. Over the years, we have published dozens of articles, exploring different aspects of this wonderous part of existence. Our hope is that in a small way our research and writing on the exciting psychology of emotion will benefit you.

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Barrett, L.F. (2020). Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Barrett, L. F. (2018). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition.

Damasio, A. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.

David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition.

Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam; 10th Anniversary edition.

Maté M.D., G. (2011). When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley; 1st edition.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. (1990). Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.

Sapolski, R. M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.

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