Human emotions, how we experience them and why, have long been studied philosophically. But in the last thirty years, modern science has taken aim at understanding our brain activity related to our emotions and we have found many scientific explanations for our wide array of emotional responses.
Dr. Antonio R. Damasio, a Neurologist and Chair of the Neurology department at the University of Iowa has curated the world's largest database of brain injury scans. This is the basis of his research into brain activity, emotions, and their effect on behavior and mental health.
Dr. Damasio says that emotion is a very adaptive physiological response. Most of what happens during an emotional response like changes in heart rate, facial expressions, and posture is subconscious.
If our emotional reactions are subconscious, our control over these reactions is limited by our awareness. Practices like mindful meditation may give you greater control over your emotional responses by making you more aware of your triggers and feelings.
The Connection Between Emotions and Health
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Harvard Neuroscientist and best-selling author with an interest in studying the science behind human emotion. Barrett’s research suggests that we are all influenced by the words and actions of those around us.
Human beings are social by nature. Mounds of studies have drawn correlations between healthy social relationships and healthier, longer lives. Research has also proven the opposite to be true, that lonely people die sooner, get sick more often, and do not recover as well when they do get sick.
The power of these social connections to lift us up or weigh us down affects all systems in the body. Something as simple as words and tone has the power to trigger a release of hormones that can either calm you down or amp you up.
Prolonged exposure to negative relationships, like those that are verbally or emotionally abusive, can actually damage the brain. We experience this trauma as chronic stress that manifests in costly and concerning health conditions like diabetes, depression or heart disease.
Good or bad, the emotions that you feel are driven by intrinsic brain activity and are not within your control. If you are in the 20% of the population who shares the personality trait of high emotional sensitivity, the frequent crying and apparent overreactions are not an indication that you are being ‘too sensitive.’
There is still a lot of unknown territory in the realm of human emotion. Emotions are complex and intangible which makes it impossible to get an apples-to-apples comparison. Scientists and researchers debate everything from the number of human emotions to the origin of emotions.
Whether our emotions are most heavily influenced by culture, genetics or environment remains to be discovered. Regardless of their origin, our emotions and the extent to which we feel them affects our happiness.
Maslow's Theory of Human Behavior: Fulfilling Our Needs Makes us Happy
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist credited with the introduction of a practical model for identifying and assessing human needs as they relate to our behavior. In his 1943 paper, "A Theory on Human Motivation," Maslow proposed a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of common human needs that each person has to meet in order to achieve balanced mental health.
Maslow's research has been widely adopted in the field of psychology and remains relevant today. While there are many moving pieces to the puzzle of finding happiness, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is the unequivocal starting point.
Fulfilling Our Need to Belong
Dr. Brene Brown is a social scientist and qualitative researcher with a deep field of study into understanding our basic human need to belong. She has a PhD in sociology and has built a career around studying human connection that has resulted in piles of research papers, best-selling books, and high-profile speaking engagements.
Dr. Brown's research draws a stark contrast between "belonging" and "fitting in." She outlines a difference that many of us are likely not consciously aware of. According to Dr. Brown, belonging comes from possessing the courage to be authentic and true to yourself.
Fitting in is what we, as humans, perpetually try to do to make ourselves less noticeable and more like the others. We go against our true nature in an attempt to assimilate with the masses because it protects us from vulnerability.
But hiding from difficult emotions is not conducive to finding happiness. We may temporarily pacify our need for belonging