Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Role of Emotions in life

  1. Positive emotions are the reward for living.
  2. Emotions motivate us to act to gain or keep values.
  3. Emotions are a mechanism whose goal is to safeguard our life.
  4. Emotions are crucial cognitive aids.

  1. First and foremost: Emotions, positive emotions - are the reward for living. They are the reward for every action, every effort we put in to achieve something.
    Falling in love, enjoying some activity, person or object, Feeling relaxed, joyous, entertained and the rest of the pleasant emotions are the reward for living - they are what make life worth maintaining. Psychologically - there is no escape from the fact that enjoyment is the fuel life requires. The only purpose of life compatible with the human nature is happiness.
    To quote Ayn Rand: "It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it."

  2. Emotions are motivators for action. Pleasure motivates us to gain values and unpleasant emotions motivates us to protect values from danger. Without emotions we would not even care if a danger was staring us in the face. Without holding in mind the enjoyment promised by having money, or the fear of being homeless - there would be no motivation to work.

  3. Emotions are mechanisms aimed at helping our survival (helping to achieve and keep values).

    "In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death." (Ayn Rand, The virtue of selfishness)

    Emotional pain (such as sorrow, fear, anger) by its nature, indicates a danger to a value; such as fear of losing our wallet or anger at having a piece of property taken away from us.
    Because emotional pain is experienced as unpleasant it motivates us to avoid that feeling, which in action is achieved by protecting our values and trying to regain what is lost or threatened.
    Emotional pleasure is a result of achieving a value; such as enjoying a stack of money, a comedy act or Relaxing at the safety of your home.
    Since these emotions are experienced as pleasurable, we are motivated to achieve them by achieving values: Earning money, going to see a comedy act or building a home.
    Happiness results from achieving values, and therefore indicates a successful state of being - a success in living.

    Overall emotions as a mechanism safeguard our values. Values are things which our life require - and therefore emotions safeguard our lives.

    [One important note to add here is that values still need to be chosen by every person. Wanting a house or money is not automatic. But once a person chooses to live, these other values are what is required to sustain that choice. If a person thinks correctly he will end up holding these things as values].

  4. Emotions are cognitive aids in several ways:

    • They provide a quick summary of your subconscious evaluation of something based on vast amount of knowledge. Emotions are experienced as an emotion, but what the feeling is based on is some intellectual calculation. For example: when you feel fear at reading a piece of news that may affect your stock value negatively, Like a person for holding certain fundamental ideas you agree with, or enjoy a new cellphone.
      In all these cases there is a lot of knowledge that you are not directly aware of when you experience the emotion which is involved in generating the emotion.
      In the first example I gave: you subconsciously understand how the piece of news will affect your stock value, how much money you put into that stock, other assets in your life that may be in danger if you loose a certain amount of money, or the threat to your dream vacation you were planing to pay for with the money. The threat to these values is what triggers the fear - even though you are only directly aware of the newspaper article (at least at the first moment of grasping the issue).
      Unlike reason - which is a more precise tool, but is much slower than emotions, which are lightning quick calculations of how something relates to you, based on all of your knowledge.
      Because of that they provide very important input for you to consider and can help make a thinking process faster and based on more of your knowledge.

    • Certain class of emotions are devoted to the value of knowledge, and they help our thinking by providing feedback about our process of conscious thinking. This class includes: Confusion, clarity, unclarity, certainty, doubt, surprise, suspicion, boredom, curiosity.
      To see the significance of these emotions to your thinking, try to imagine how the process of learning a new subject would go if you didn't have the emotions of confusion or unclarity. You would not know when to ask questions because nothing would indicate to you the need to ask, because you would never feel that something is unclear or confusing. Furthermore, the motivation to avoid an intellectual state of confusion will be gone. Confusion is an unpleasant emotion which motivates us to straighten out the facts so that we are clear on a subject.

    • Emotions help keep concepts concretized (This idea is taken from Leonard Peikoff's audio course "Understanding Objectivism" ). A concept like "life" or "rights" when accompanied by the right emotions helps keep in mind what these words mean in reality: "life" is not merely a definition of biological function, but it means your life, the existence of people you love, the difference between the fun you had with a pet when it was alive vs. lack of it after it is gone. "Life" then means something real. Similarly "justice" means the difference between wasting one's life in jail because of injustice and not merely a dictionary definition. One can stay indifferent about a dry intellectual definition of the word justice, but one cannot stay indifferent about spending time in jail while being innocent.
      A great example of that would be something I heard in sociology class long time ago: After extensive research, two sociology researchers found that a clear connection exists between feelings of distress and suicide.
      For a normal person, the idea of suicide is concretized by an understanding of the negative emotions involved. Nobody thinks that a man takes his life without feeling some emotional distress. But for the researchers, it was a purely statistical intellectual matter - which is why they saw the need to conduct a research for what every idiot on the street could tell them right away.

This has been a rather condense discussion of the role of emotions in life because it was connecting the topic of emotions to many different subjects.
I'd appreciate your feedback if something was left unclear and whether or not it was too condense to keep all the conclusions in mind.

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