We live in a constant flurry of emotions. Each moment is bathed in feeling. Unless we have a biological disorder, such as alexithymia, or a learned defensive protection, such as emotional detachment, emotions are a center piece on our table of life. Most goals, according to the pleasure principle, have an emotional foundation. We set goals that we believe will bring pleasure and avoid pain to appease our emotions. We exist, and parallel to our existence is this emotional life, existing inside of us.
I searched the internet and my large collection of books, reading countless articles and pages referring to 'emotional life' and never found a clear definition.
One of my favorite reads, the Emotional Life of Your Brain, referred to our emotional life repeatedly but never defined it. Perhaps, the concept is so basic that in its plainness it alludes my understanding.
Perhaps, if you landed on this page from an organic google search, you too are curious. What is our emotional life?
What Does the Term 'Emotional Life' Mean?
Life is distinguished from a dead inanimate object by the living objects capacity for growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. We easily identify life in whole organisms such as plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. We also recognize that within aa living organism are parts of the whole that are also alive, such as cells.
Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene suggests that the gene is an underlying living organism that directs the animal to ensure its (the genes) survival. In Dawkins words, "genes are the primary policy-makers; brains are the executives... The logical conclusion to this trend, not yet reached in any species, would be for the genes to give the survival machine a single overall policy instruction: do whatever you think best to keep us alive" (2016).
Organisms are open systems that maintain homeostasis, are composed of cells, have a life cycle, undergo metabolism, can grow, adapt to their environment, respond to stimuli, reproduce and evolve.
Lets move on to emotions, then we will try to tie this together in a coherent and helpful definition of the whole (emotional life).
Emotions are the end result of multiple processes of perceiving, interpreting, and applying learned concepts.
Lisa Feldman Barrett explains, "a physical event like a change in heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration becomes an emotional experience only when we, with emotion concepts that we have learned from our culture, imbue the sensations with additional functions by social agreement." Feldman Barrett continues, "we must not confuse physical reality, such as changes in heart rate or widened eyes, with the social reality of emotion concepts" (2017, p. 39).
Emotions such as sadness, fear, joy are labels we give to physical events such as increased heart rate, rising blood pressure and increased respiration.
Emotions and Life Together
A single experience of emotion passes quickly, fading into a mood that may last for hours, days, or months. However, when writers and psychologists refer to emotional life they are referring to more than a passing emotion but a conglomerate of emotions, the entirety of our emotional existence.
All the processes underlying our personal construction of emotion and our relationship with the arising emotions becomes our emotional life.
Emotions from this conceptual view are living entities. Emotions live because they grow, react, and communicate. Our brain and the brains of others become partners with the living emotions thriving inside each of us.
Emotional life refers to the entirety of the processes that underlie our construction of emotion and our personal relationship with those emotions.
Nurturing Our Emotional Life
Following along the concept that our emotional existence is a living being, in order to thrive, our emotional life must be nurtured.
Feldman Barrett offers this, "the science is crystal clear on healthful food, regular exercise, and sleep as prerequisites for a balanced body budget and a healthy emotional life. A chronically taxed body budget increases your chances of developing a host of different illnesses" (2017, p. 178).
If we want a healthy emotional life, we begin by adopting healthy habits. A foundation of healthy living provides the necessary resources from which emotions spring.
We add to these basics of wellness, self-care to avoid burnout and overwhelm. According to the diathesis stress model, illness form when we continually overtax our system.
Supportive, validating relationships are also essential to nurture our emotional lives. Our souls leap with joy when significant figures in our life seamlessly attune to our emotions, accept their existence, and see them as appropriate responses to life.
Daniel Siegal wrote:
From the beginning of life, emotion constitutes both the process and the content of communication between infant and caregiver. Simply put, a baby’s inner state is perceived by parents, who in turn feel in a parallel manner themselves. The baby perceives the parents’ contingent response, and the affect is mutually attuned. Later, in addition, parents use words to talk about feelings and direct a shared attention to the infant’s state of mind. The parents may state directly that the baby is feeling sad or happy or scared, giving the infant the interactive verbal experience of being able both to identify and to share an emotional experience. this earliest form of communication in a setting of safety and comfort provides the child with a sense that her emotional life can be shared and be a source of soothing from others (2012, Kindle location 6,744).
The very beginnings of a healthy emotional life is found in a parents recognition of its existence in the child. When the parent recognizes, attunes and validates, this life energy thrives in the child and carries them through adulthood, pushing them towards a flourishing life.
Davidson, Richard J. (2012) The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Ca n Change Them. Avery; 1st edition
Dawkins, Richard (2016). The Selfish Gene. OUP Oxford; 4th edition
Feldman-Barrett, Lisa (2017) How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012). The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 2nd edition
Other Flourishing Life Society articles of interest on this topic: