We tend to use the words feelings and emotions interchangeably. Of course they are closely related, but there is a difference and understanding it is important. At stake is the way you behave in this world.

What Are Emotions?

Primal Emotions

Emotions are physical and instinctive. They have been programmed into our genes over many, many years of evolution and are hard-wired. While they are complex and involve a variety of physical and cognitive responses (many of which are not well understood), their general purpose is to produce a specific response to a stimulus. For example: You are on your own and on foot in the savanna wilderness, you see a lion, and you instantly get scared. Emotions can be measured objectively by blood flow, brain activity, facial expressions and body stance. Important note: Emotions are carried out by the limbic system, our emotional processing center. This means that they are illogical, irrational, and unreasonable because the limbic system is separate from – sitting literally behind – the neocortex, the part of our brain that deals with conscious thoughts, reasoning and decision making.

emotional word wheel

What Are Feelings?

Feelings on the other hand play out in our heads. They are mental associations and reactions to an emotion that are personal and acquired through experience. There are over 3,000 feelings listed in the English language. Most people can easily recognize at least 500 of those, but when asked to list emotions they can only list five to ten. The emotion comes first and is universal. What kind of feeling(s) it will then become varies enormously from person to person and from situation to situation because feelings are shaped by individual temperament and experience. Two people can feel the same emotion but label it under different names. For example: You are in a zoo on your own and on foot, you see a lion behind bars, and your  feelings may range from curiosity to admiration or bitterness if you believe lions should never be caged.

The Differences Between Emotions and Feelings in a Nutshell

Emotions are event-driven, while feelings are learned behaviors that are usually in hibernation until triggered by an external event.

Feelings Emotions
Feelings tell us “how to live.” Emotions tell us what we “like” and “dislike.”
Feelings state: “There is a right and wrong way to be.” Emotions state: “There are good and bad actions.”
Feelings state: “Your emotions matter. Emotions state: “The external world matters.
Feelings establish our long term attitude toward reality. Emotions establish our initial attitude toward reality.
Feelings alert us to anticipated dangers and prepares us for action. Emotion alert us to immediate dangers and prepares us for action
Feelings ensure long-term survival of self. (body and mind.) Emotions ensure immediate survival of self. (body and mind.)
Feelings are low-key but sustainable. Emotions are intense but temporary.
Happiness is a feeling. Joy is an emotion.
Worry is a feeling. Fear is an emotion.
Contentment is a feeling. Enthusiasm is an emotion.
Bitterness is a feeling. Anger is an emotion.
Love is a feeling. Attraction is an emotion.

A more comprehensive list of emotions vs. feelings is available here.

So what?

The secret to knowing who you are and living well begins with knowing the difference between sustained feelings and temporary emotions. Think about it this way: Nothing you can ever experience in life, no matter how terrible, will ever be anything more than a bunch of thoughts, plus a few physical sensations. Can you handle that?

Being able to clearly identify how we are feeling has been shown to reduce the intensity of experience because it re-engages our rational mind. The most elegant way to identify the emotion behind a particular negative feeling is to simply ask “What surprised you?

Learn to feel and embrace all of your emotions fully without labelling them, and work on expressing them constructively. Remove the narrative as much and as often as possible, and focus on the actions that you believe will give you results that serve you best. If and when you want to change your emotions know that you can do so easily and safely within minutes with wellness modalities such as Laughter Wellness or Laughter Yoga that invite people to engage through the motions of laughter, joy and empowerment in an effort to jump start those very emotions. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but it is worth it.

I have written in-depth on this topic in our online training “Laughter For Self-Help“. If you are serious about not just deepening your understanding on how to live a better life but also learning how to unlock the many benefits of laughter (healing can be fun!) then buy it now or ask it as a gift for your birthday or Christmas. 30 days money back guarantee!

See the face you love light up with Laughter WellnessGentle Solo Laughter Wellness Workout

Related links

  • How I feel” (an exercise you can use both at the beginning and the end of your laughter sessions.)
  • The science of emotions (we have a joy system in our brain!)


I found this article by John Voris valuable when researching for this one.