Why do we need emotions?

We need our emotions for protection.

When a car swerves in front of yours on the highway, your mind takes that cue as dangerous, triggers fear and almost automatically reacts to swerve out of the way. Even after the fear has dissipated, you may still feel the fear in your body.

I remember once when I was on the highway (and talking on the cell phone), I saw a car seem to fly into the air two lanes over from me and a few cars in front. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion, because a postal truck, one of those with a van-like cab and a boxy truck-like back, turned directly into my lane to avoid the flying car.

My fear immediately rose. I knew there was a threat. I dropped the phone, slammed on the brakes (with all of the junk in my car hurtling towards me), and turned the wheel. I guided my car into the emergency lane between the highway and the divider and missed the postal truck by inches. I was safe and unharmed, but it still took my body about half an hour to recover from the physiological effects of fear. I was shaky and drained and had to pull off the road to recover.

OK, so now you might be saying, “I can understand why we need emotions in a situation like that, but what about regular decision-making? Shouldn’t we decide things based on the facts and our rational assessment of the facts?” Actually, the answer is “no.” Even in the modern world we need our emotions to help us make wise decisions.

Emotions function in three important ways. These are:

  • Emotions can help to communicate with and to influence other people.
  • Emotions can organize and contribute to the motivation of actions and behaviors.
  • Emotions can provide information about our environment.

If you lack the ability to make meaning out of emotions, you have a diminished capability to do one or all of the above.

Adapted from When Hope is Not Enough

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