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We’ve Been Thinking About Emotions All Wrong

By Loret Haas-Hanser

Artwork by Maryann Makosiej

Emotions are complex aspects of the human psyche. On your wedding day, you’ll feel happy and in love; when you fail a test, you’ll feel sad; when you don’t win the lottery, you might feel greedy or betrayed- it’s amazing how what happens around us can shape our emotions. However, as individuals, we can shape our own emotions. Previous psychological and neuroscientific research was focused on the idea that there exists a specific brain circuit for emotions. Interestingly, this has recently proven to be untrue. There is no emotional circuit, no fear circuit, no happiness circuit. The capability to be an architect and shape your emotional experiences is a new research breakthrough that has the potential to change lives. By changing your mindset, paying attention to specifically salient situational differences or even just by purposefully thinking one way or another, you can change your emotions. You can be upset or regretful on your wedding day, happy to fail a test, or weirdest of all, congratulatory to whoever won the lottery.

In order to really understand this seemingly simple yet complex topic, it is important to understand what emotions really are. “Emotion” is essentially a cognitive and behavioral response associated with thoughts and feelings, while “mood” is a temporary state of feeling. Although sometimes the two are used interchangeably, mood and emotion are in a symbiotic relationship, in that they both perpetuate each other. Here’s the secret: what you see is influenced and changed by how you feel. In a recent publication and Ted Talk, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett mentions that mood impacts all of your senses. Think of it this way: if you’re upset about getting a parking ticket, that milkshake you stopped to get might not taste as good, even if before the ticket it was the best milkshake you’ve ever had. The example Dr. Feldman Barrett discusses is intriguing: a soldier in a war torn country saw an enemy troup, lead by a man with a large rifle. As he went to shoot the man with a rifle, his friend tapped his shoulder and mentioned that it was just a boy herding a pack of cattle. If it was just a pack of cows and a young boy, why on earth did he think it was a troup with guns?

Interestingly, what this man experienced is not uncommon. Because his mood was tense and he was in an atmosphere of war, his led caused him to see what wasn’t actually there. Essentially, your emotions can be changed based on your mood as well as external variables, such as location or cultural context. This may seem scary, but in actuality, this is a breakthrough in realizations about emotional intelligence. We, as humans, can psychologically change how we experience emotions based on how we process new information. It’s an interesting attack on common sense without a doubt - you can change how you interpret things based on how you feel. There are many applications of this research, the biggest being impacts on developing emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence, Positive Psychology Program

The way we perceive stimuli changes the value and salience of the stimulus. We can choose how to perceive stimuli by working on our emotional intelligence (EI). In a way, we’re almost tricking the mind. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to increase awareness and control when expressing emotions. EI begins developing in adolescence through peer relationships and interactions with adults. As children, we learn to perceive the world based on how other people do, whether that be our family, teachers, friends, or even pets or inanimate objects. From a young age, we are taught how to feel and how to process information. When combined with a positive upbringing, little trauma, and complete success in any and every activity, there is no need to work on EI. However, that very rarely happens. Through maturation, we all subconsciously make adjustments to our EI. The first time you get broken up with hurts more than the second, and the third parking ticket might upset you less than the first. Not only is this due to exposure, this is because you’ve adapted your EI through the experience of stressful situations.

Thanks to research breakthroughs by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and other behavioral neuroscientists, we now understand how to change our affect, the experience of feeling emotion, to adapt to challenging environments. This information changes how we learn about emotion and how we can teach ourselves to feel emotion altogether. Not only does working on improving your EI by changing your mindset help everyday folks, but also those experiencing psychological distress. This may have important implications for patients with anxiety, depression, PTSD and schizophrenia. The scientific community is experiencing an emotional revolution that will change the psychological community forever.

A note from the author:

This article was fun to read and write about, but I just want to debunk this myth a little further. I’ve had terrible test anxiety for as long as I can remember - palms sweaty, nervous shaking, nausea, and worst of all, forgetting information. Recently, a professor told a class I was in that if we tell ourselves we are excited for an exam, rather than nervous, we can manipulate our brains to actually cancelling out this nervous feeling. Between you and me, I thought this was absolutely nuts...and then I tried it. I woke up early and told myself I knew I was prepared and I was excited to see how well I could do. Every time I felt myself getting nervous, I flipped the switch and told myself I was excited. Let me tell you, during and after the exam, I didn’t have the same anxiety. I didn’t feel relieved that it was over; I was just just excited to see my grade and ready to tackle the next challenge. I urge you to try changing your mindset and fighting your negative affect. Thank you Professor Shamila Lekka, PhD., of the University of Vermont for giving insight on how to make positive emotional changes.


Barrett, L. F. (2006). Solving the emotion paradox: Categorization and the experience of emotion. Personality and social psychology review, 10(1), 20-46.

Russell, J. A., & Barrett, L. F. (1999). Core affect, prototypical emotional episodes, and other things called emotion: dissecting the elephant. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(5), 805.

Lewis, M., Haviland-Jones, J. M., & Barrett, L. F. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of emotions. Guilford

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