This article discusses the difference between feelings and emotions. Let’s be honest: conveying internal feelings in words in not easy, and that explains a lot of the confusion on this topic. We tend to use the words emotions, feelings and moods interchangeably. Of course they are closely related and yes this is a complex topic, but there is a fundamental difference and understanding it is important. At stake is the way you behave in this world.

What Are Emotions?

Feelings and Emotions

Essentially 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.

I’d like to give you a clear list of universally recognized emotions but unfortunately (1) such a list does not exist and (2) the English language is too limited anyway. You will see below for example that some of the lists established in the past themselves label as emotion what technically is more of a feeling (e.g., happiness, a feeling that comes over you when you know life is good and you can’t help but smile) but that’s because we don’t have a better way of clearly expressing the difference. Like in the Chinese parable of the sage pointing and the moon while the student focuses on the finger, I invite you to not focus on the limitations of the English language but rather look at the deeper underlying message I’m attempting to convey in this article.

Here is what we know: William James proposed four basic emotions: fear, grief, love, and rage, based on bodily involvement. Paul Ekman devised six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. Wallace V. Friesen and Phoebe C. Ellsworth worked with him and agreed on the same structure of emotions. In the book Passion and Reason Richard and Bernice Lazarus  list fifteen different emotions: aesthetic experience, anger, anxiety, compassion, depression, envy, fright, gratitude, guilt, happiness, hope, jealousy, love, pride, relief, sadness, and shame. Psychologists identify twenty-seven categories of emotion: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, contempt, craving, disappointment, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, envy, excitement, fear, guilt, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, pride, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise, sympathy and triumph. This was based on 2185 short videos intended to elicit a certain emotion. These were then modelled onto a “map” of emotions.

Read more about how psychologists classify emotions here.

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 4,000 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.

What Are Moods?

In psychology, a mood is an emotional state. In contrast to emotions, feelings, or affects, moods are less specific, less intense and less likely to be provoked or instantiated by a particular stimulus or event. Moods are typically described as having either a positive or negative impact. In other words, people usually talk about being in a good mood or a bad mood.

One Viewpoint On The Basic Differences Between Emotions and Feelings

Emotions are event-driven, while feelings are learned behaviors that are usually in hibernation until triggered by an external event. Unlike happiness for example (a feeling), joy (an emotion) involves little cognitive awareness—we feel good without consciously deciding to. Whereas happiness is usually induced by and dependent on outside conditions, joy is something we experience more deeply; it’s a state of being that’s not necessarily tied to external situations. While happiness is a state of mind based on circumstances, joy is an internal feeling that disregards circumstances.

Here are some examples of different feelings and emotions and how they differ one from another:

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 tend to be sustainable. Emotions are intense but tend to be 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.

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. Get a list of feelings words here.

The most elegant way to identify the emotion behind a particular negative feeling is to simply ask “What surprised you?

On Altering Your Perspective

Most people believe that their mood, attitude or the way they feel is based upon circumstances or other people. Ask anyone you know who is in a bad mood or depressed why they feel the way they do and virtually all of them will tell you about a circumstance or an encounter with someone else.

The truth of the matter, however, is that feelings are caused by the thoughts about circumstances and people. People or circumstances in and of themselves cannot directly impact your feelings. Being crystal clear about this concept will give you a great sense of empowerment and freedom. The following story exemplifies this idea.

Two shoe salesmen travel to a distant island to open up a new market for their shoe line. Once they arrive, they canvass the area to evaluate its potential. Shortly thereafter, the first salesman in a very downtrodden mood calls back to the home office and says, “bad news, no one here wears shoes,” and took the next plane home. The other sales person, could hardly contain himself and when he called the home office he said, “great news, no one here wears shoes and we have no competition, we better have a lot of product on hand.”

In Conclusion

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 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.

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

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Are you feeling emotional or do you have emotional feelings about this topic? What is your take on the difference between feelings and emotions? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below!