Also available on substack.
Our emotional state is a measure of our survival status.
All our emotional states are driven by one thing; the desire to exist. When our survival status is diminished, we experience the so-called negative emotions, and when it is enhanced, we experience the so-called positive emotions. A diminishing of our survival status, no matter how indirect, creates emotional pain in the form of anger, hatred, fear, depression, melancholy, and so on. Enhanced survival prospects create joy, confidence, excitement, love, enthusiasm, optimism. It’s all entirely mechanical, and it is not uncommon for one type of emotion to pass into another: fear into hope or love into hatred, for example.
Because we are so attuned to our survival status, our emotions change all the time. This volatility of the emotional states is unique to human beings because we have a highly developed sense of our survival status. We are aware of our current situation and can imagine any possible changes of status in the future. As a result of this volatility and the ability to imagine future events, we suffer a great deal.
At the root of our emotional nature are pleasure and pain. When our desire to exist is fulfilled, we feel pleasure; when threatened, we feel pain. These are actual bodily states and are not just in the mind. Each emotion will comprise a physical condition; for example, clenched fists if angry, and ideas associated with the state; in the case of anger, maybe the idea of the person we want to destroy since anger is always a desire to destroy the thing that has given us pain.
Our emotional nature is a property of our animal body, and the brain function developed in animals known as the limbic system. The curse placed explicitly on human beings is that we have a highly developed limbic system coupled with a very active conceptual mind. In this way, we tend to exaggerate existential threats and opportunities with resulting anxiety, stress, and intense emotional states.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of our psyche is the notion of a self. Not only do we respond to the environment via our immediate emotions, as indeed does an animal, but our conceptual mind creates the concept of a self, of being a definite psychological entity. This evolution of a sense of self is a master move on nature’s part since it motivates us to strive even harder to maintain our existence. Animals seek enhanced survival status and avoid diminished status instinctively. We also do this, but the notion that we have a self causes us to strive to maintain this psychological mirage. The result, yet again, is even more anxiety, stress, and striving.
The living proof that our striving for existence has become dysfunctional is the large number of people taking antidepressants and anxiety medications and the need to escape the very existence we crave through alcohol and drugs of various kinds. This inherent contradiction in our existence; that we desire it while often feeling the need to numb ourselves to it shows the conflict that is an integral part of our psychological makeup. This contradiction is quickly understood when we separate the instinctive and emotional aspects, which crave existence, and the conceptual mind that looks at our situation and can be less than enthusiastic about it.
If our emotional life is to become tolerable, we need to manage it, and with the appropriate skills and application, this is indeed possible. Either our emotions dominate us, or we dominate them; one is mechanical and the other requires conscious effort.