Emotions

Nowhere is language more confused than regarding the words falling under the rubric "emotion": love, hate, fear, etc. Let us start with a definition: emotion = pre-coded thought pattern with associated bodily response. Primitive lower-mind emotional thinking is to be contrasted with advanced higher-mind logical thinking, which lacks an associated bodily response. Emotional thinking has the advantage of speed, but is unable to deal with complexity. Vice-versa for logical thinking. Emotional thinking works well for the simple situations faced by animals (including the human animal) in a primitive natural setting, but works poorly in modern society. Thus the goal of the wise is to replace emotional thinking with logical thinking as much as possible. This assumes that our higher logical mind has not been corrupted by false teachings of some sort. Otherwise, the lower emotional mind may give better results even in modern society. But it is a mistake, in the long run, to substitute the lower emotional mind for a corrupted logical mind. Rather, the logical mind should be cleansed of its corruption so as to work properly.

Desire, pain, pleasure and happiness are commonly considered to be emotions. However, the concepts associated with these words do not fit the definition of emotion given above. Desire, pain, pleasure and happiness are that which thinking, whether emotional or logical, is attempting to satisfy, minimize or maximize, as the case may be, rather than pre-coded patterns of thinking. Happiness is sometimes used as a synonym for joy, which is an emotion, as opposed to a composite of much pleasure and little pain. In this discussion, happiness has the latter meaning only.

Consider an animal whose thinking is primitive, sub-conscious and falls into standard pre-coded patterns, and thus is mostly emotional rather than logical. Given that the goal of living creatures is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, then an animal faced with an object or situation can do one of three things: (a) move away from the object or situation so as to reduce pain (or increase pleasure); (b) move towards the object or situation so as to increase pleasure (or reduce pain); (c) neither of the above. This covers all possibilities. Also, the animal has a range of levels of bodily arousal, ranging from excitation above the baseline to quiescence below the baseline. Movement implies excitation. Lack of excitation (quiescence) and movement neither towards or away from the object or situation typically occurs in the aftermath of failure, when the best thing is to stop doing whatever it was that caused the failure, give the body time to repair any illness or injury, and conserve energy while reflecting on what went wrong and devising a new strategy which will lead to success in the future. Finally, there is the case of excitation but movement neither towards or away from the object or situation, which typically occurs when the optimal course of action is to defend a desirable territory (one which results in much pleasure and little pain) against an equal-size or smaller competitor. This last case might be described as movement-in-place or holding ground, as opposed giving ground by moving away or taking ground by moving towards. Thus we have the following combinations:

emotions diagram 1

When faced with an object or situation which may merit a response, but prior to deciding what sort of response is appropriate, the response is simple excitation-in-itself. This is a transient state, and is always immediately followed by a transition to one of the other states of excitation, or by a return to the neutral state if the animal decides that the object or situation does not merit a response. For simplicity, the excitation-in-itself state has been placed at the top of the excitation-quiescence axis, however it could have been placed anywhere above the neutral state along this axis.

Movement away from an object or situation has been subdivided into two states. This is because when the cause of movement is itself capable of rapid movement (such as a predator or larger competitor) then high excitation is best in order to escape quickly. Whereas when the cause of movement is not itself capable of rapid movement (such as poisonous food), then low excitation is better, since high excitation is costly.

Movement in place has also been subdivided. Defending territory by fighting off equal-sized or smaller competitors requires high excitation. But fighting is costly. So if either invader or defender is confident it can win the fight, it is best to clearly express this confidence from the outset, such as via facial expressions or body language or sounds, so as to induce the opponent to retreat without fighting, rather than immediately launching an attack. Expressing confidence requires lower excitation than fighting, and this explains the two states for movement in place. Obviously, there are opportunities for bluffing here. That is, a clever animal may express confidence even when it lacks confidence. If the bluff fails, the animal that was bluffing may or may not proceed with an attack.

In some cases, an object or situation is persistent or repetitive, and thus the response should be sustained, in order to obtain optimal results. For example, once a predator, competitor or food source is recognized as such, response should be immediate, rather than repeating the process of determining what sort of response is merited by the object or situation. The sustained response to predators and competitors is similar, in that in both cases the goal is to increase distance (the animal flees predators and larger competitors, the animal try to make equal-sized or smaller competitors flee), which is why these states are grouped in the diagram. In the extreme case, distance is increased to infinity by destroying the response-generating object or situation. By contrast, the sustained response to food is to reduce distance between the animal and the response-generating object or situation, implying that the goal is to preserve rather than destroy.


In the next diagram, phrases have been replaced by single words. Recall, however, that what matters is the underlying concepts, and not the words used to label these concepts.

emotions diagram 2

Pity was not shown on the first diagram, since it is not clear that animals have such an emotion—it appears to be uniquely human. Pity typically implies that we try to help the object of pity, which means movement towards rather than no movement or movement away. Pity is associated with at most a low degree of excitation, or even quiescence if the pity is mixed with a sense of failure and loss. Pity thus is a mild form of joy, perhaps mixed with sadness.

According to modern psychologists, there are seven universal human facial expressions: surprise, fear, anger, joy, disgust, contempt, sadness. These emotions are common to both humans and higher mammals, because they reflect the essential nature of animal existence, as discussed in relationship to the first diagram above. The universality of these seven facial expressions suggests the association between emotion and facial expression is coded deep into the structure of the lower brain, which is where both emotional thinking and muscular control take place. There is no universal human facial expression for pity, which is not surprising: pity is an emotion of recent origin and does not reflect the essential nature of animal existence. The most common facial expression for pity is a combination of the universal facial expressions for joy and sadness. The facial expressions for love and hate are those of the related short-term emotion—joy in the case of love, and fear, anger, disgust or contempt in the case of hate.

There are many possible transitions between states. For example, while fighting, we feel anger. If we win the fight, anger turns to joy. If we lose, anger turns to fear. After fleeing due to losing a fight, fear turns to sadness and we reflect on what caused the loss and how to prevent losses in the future. If we win easily, anger turns to contempt. If we come to regret being involved in the fight, anger may turn to disgust. And so on.

Surprise is more closely related to fear than to joy or anger, because fear is the safest follow-up response. That is, if we aren't sure how to respond to an object or situation, responding with fear is safer than responding with anger or joy.

The expression "joy of the hunt" indicates the active nature of this emotion. This expression is useful as a way keeping in mind the distinction between the emotion joy versus a composite of much pleasure and little pain, which is the meaning we have assigned to happiness in the present discussion. (It is perfectly acceptable to use happiness in ordinary English as a synonym for the emotion joy. We limited the meaning of happiness in the present discussion because we needed a word for the concept of much pleasure and little pain, and happiness seemed the best choice.)

It is possible to have joyless pleasure or pleasureless joy. Furthermore, intense joy creates stress, though perhaps less stress than intense fear or anger. Constant intense joy thus means constant stress, which will likely increase pain. There do not appear to be any negatives associated with the concept of constant joyless pleasure; however, it is questionable whether constant pleasure, joyless or otherwise, is possible in this world. This is because most activities which generate pleasure when performed for a short period of time, will generate pain if performed for a sufficiently long period of time.

Especially in humans, the complexity of the higher mind can disrupt the simple schema presented above and cause emotions that don't make sense. For example, humans often feel feel joy and love towards things which cause pain, and fear and hate towards things which cause pleasure. It is also common for humans to simultaneously experience a mixture of conflicting emotions. For example, to love and hate something at the same time.

"Unconditional love" is a particularly misleading term. If the beloved object causes pleasure, then no need for the qualifier. Otherwise, the qualification is legalistic and suggests the higher logical mind has resolved to feel love for something which should cause hate. However, the essence of emotions is that they occur below the control of the higher logical mind. Furthermore, it is doubtful that "love for something which causes pain" endures in the face of extreme pain. "She gave her son unconditional love" is a typical usage. Now suppose this son tortures the other children of this mother to death, sets the house on fire repeatedly, and finally threatens to kill the mother if she doesn't give him all her money, and when the mother looks into the eyes of this monster, she sees the dead gaze of a heroin addict. Is she still going to feel love? Unlikely, which means the love was never truly unconditional, but rather was ordinary love that could forgive and forget a few faults, though not utter depravation.


Excitation, wonder, astonishment, amazement, awe are synonyms or variations on surprise.

Terror, dread, horror, trepidation mean great fear.

Anxiety is a type of chronic fear, usually towards something abstract, such as fear of God's disapproval, where God is an personification of society's moral code.

Guilt is similar to anxiety, but specifically refers to fear of future punishment for something we are doing now or did in the past.

Shame, embarrassment, remorse, regret are similar to guilt.

Distrust, suspicion, paranoia, humility are more variations on fear.

Distaste and revulsion are variations on disgust.

Anger and contempt have many synonyms, reflecting the importance of conflict for humans and other social animals. Examples: rage, acrimony, peevishness, pique, frustration, vexation, annoyance, irritation, impatience, displeasure, dislike, sulkiness, loathing, resentment, obstinacy, stubbornness, defiance, bitterness, scorn, disdain, condescension. Many of these synonyms combine anger/contempt with fear. To the extent they imply a sustained response, they combine anger/contempt with hate.

Envy and jealousy are both emotions of conflict over possessions, and thus are related to anger, since anger is the basic emotion of conflict.

Pride, smugness, complacency, gloating are related to both anger and joy, since they tend to occur in the aftermath of a struggle, as the anger turns to joy.

Laughter is a behavior rather than an emotion, and usually occurs in combination with one of the emotions of excitation: joy, anger or fear.

Hope is joy where the increase in pleasure or reduction in pain occurs in the future.

Ecstasy, cheerfulness, enthusiasm, exaltation, ebullience, bliss are all either synonyms for happiness, and thus not true emotions, or else variations on the emotion joy.

Greed is anticipated joy

Affection, attraction, fondness, attachment, benevolence are synonyms for love.

Gratitude and trust are special forms of love, to the extent that these are emotions rather than rational thinking.

Lust is a mixture of sexual desire, which is not an emotion, and the emotion joy. To the extent lust involves a sustained response, there is also love involved, since love is the emotion associated with sustained movement towards an object or situation which increases pleasure and/or reduces pain.

Boredom is the pain which results from failure to expend mental or physical energy, and pain is not an emotion.

Ennui, tedium, weariness are synonyms for boredom, and thus not emotions, or else they might be called variations on sadness.

Apathy is a synonym for dispassion, or the absence of emotion.

Empathy is not an emotion but rather means feeling the same emotion as another creature, whatever that emotion may be.

Sympathy is a synonym for both empathy (which is not an emotion) and pity.

Compassion is a synonym for pity.

Grief, anguish, mournfulness, despair, despondency, discouragement, sorrow, resignation, loneliness are variations on sadness. As noted before, sadness is typically associated with loss. Some typical losses for animals would include: loss of territory due to losing a fight with a competitor, loss of offspring, loss of food due to failure to catch prey. With humans, there is the possibility of more abstract forms of loss, such as loss of dignity, loss of reputation, loss of self-esteem.


To reiterate, in modern society, the optimal path to happiness, which is the goal of life, consists in replacing emotional thinking with logical thinking, other than for some residual physical fear for special situations where quickness of thought is more important than complexity of thought. Dispassionate logical thinking is more difficult than emotional thinking at first, but this difficulty soon passes as the mind becomes trained. Though dispassion is the ideal, in practice constant mild joy is probably equally compatible with sustained high levels of happiness.

Sadness can be a particular bad emotion. The purpose of sadness, as noted, is to give the mind opportunity and incentive to reprogram itself. In animals, where the mind is simple and thus the required reprogramming is also simple, sadness probably works effectively. In humans, due to the much greater complexity of the mind, sadness is often counter-productive, so that the suffering is pointless. In particular, extended depression often interferes with reprogramming or causes reprogramming in the wrong direction. Humans should attempt to maintain a cheerful attitude at all times and use logic to reprogram the mind as needed, rather than relying on sadness to do the work.

Elimination of emotion does not imply any change of behavior. It merely implies that the thought process which results in the behavior is conducted at the more advanced conscious logical level rather than at the more primitive subconscious emotional level. Elimination of emotion implies nothing about the underlying desires which motivate thought and behavior. This can be made clearer with an example. Suppose there exists a situation in which the benefits of a war with our neighbor would greatly exceed the costs, since we are likely to win and our neighbor has something (like food) that we desperately need. Clearly, we should attack. But instead of working ourselves into a state of anger, as people usually do when they are preparing for war, we should try to maintain inner calm. The behavior that results is the same whether or not we are angry—namely, we start a war. The advantage of maintaining inner calm is that we can think more clearly, and this can be of tremendous benefit. We might, for example, want to change our outward appearance temporarily to one reflecting fear, thus luring our opponent into an ambush. If we are truly angry, it will be difficult to engage in such deception. Or we may discover that we are not likely to win the war after all, in which case we can stage an orderly retreat. By contrast, if we are filled with anger, it will be difficult to admit we are wrong until too late, and then the anger will likely turn to fear, resulting in a panicky and disorderly retreat which could be disastrous.