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?
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 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.|
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.”
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
- “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.
- About Emotional Intelligence
This article is wrong on so many levels, biggest of it is using the word ‘Feelings’ and ‘Emotions’ for each other.
Thank you for voicing your opinion, and kindly help us and everybody else understand exactly why you disagree by being more specific. If what we explain is incorrect in your book, and what would you say and why?
This article presents a workable theory. It’s credible and in understanding ourselves and what determines who and how we want to be, that is about as much as we can achieve. In that regard, I believe this is both refreshing and enlightening.
I do believe there’s a possibility that the inner most circle may not have distinct lines or perhaps there’s a circle at the heart of this all that is the raw energy of emotion. Something that might perhaps explain will (the desire to act). It may also be evidenced by the fact that we can experience happiness, in something bad that also makes us sad (spousal revenge for example).
This is an excellent breakdown. Thanks for posting this.
Thank you for your kind words!
I liked the chart. Noticed that only 25% of the emotions listed are positive, 75% negative. Am I to assume that emotions are largely negative?
Well, to keep it simple the point I am making in this article is that feelings are viewpoints whereas emotions are experiences. An experience is just that: An experience. You may or may not like it, but inherently it’s neither positive nor negative, right nor wrong. It just is what it is. Also and for reference I have removed the chart you refer to here (Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions) and replaced it with more comprehensive references.
In the story about the salesmen and the island people who don’t WEAR shoes, this word is spelled “wares” and “where’s”. Very disturbing!
Oops. Thank you for pointing this out. Now corrected!
Thank you for helping me understand the difference between emotions and feelings.please help me understand the relationship between moods and attitude
I believe the 4th difference is the basis of all the other differences
Feelings are long term v Emotions that are short term
As an example
Love LT v Attraction ST
Anticipated Dangers LT v Immediate ST
Secondly it’s the Emotions that build up the Feelings
Therefore emotions set up the initial mood and response to the external world while the feelings come out as a result of it (Difference no. 3)
Wonder if I got that right Sebastien
Hello Shakir. I fully agree with you. You are very insightful!
I think you’re pretty spot on.
Some questions we all should ask ourselves are why would we want to make anyone but our own self responsible for our own feelings and by making someone else responsible to ‘fix’ our feelings during moments of conflict would lead all while keeping something in mind: Habits and how they are formed and what is needed to break them. Just my thoughts on this. 😉
Thanks for sharing!
Good Day, can you suggest any University offering Undergraduate “Course in Emotions and Feelings” Thank you in advance.
Fantastic reading on feeling and emotions. Please recommend your book .
Wow I love this …well done Sebastian, was going through a lot of feelings which was causing a lot of dreams and you gave me an insight on the subject thank you so much … some times it’s very small changes in us what bring significant results and we often ignore it because they are too small.
May things go well and wonderful things in life follow you
The same kind of confused language and pseudo-explanations occurring in contemporary psychology.
Would you care to enlighten us about what the correct language and explanations are, from your perspective?
Thank you Sebastian. As a therapist I found your article very interesting and helpful. We randomly use the words ‘feelings’ and ’emotions’ when working with clients, without ourselves being clear on the difference and we need to be in helping others understand, make sense of, and work with their experience. kind regards
In what ways does mood influence behavior?
Is behavior mostly influenced by feelings or by emotions?
Thanks for such an enriching reading.
The answer to question #1 is experientially evident. Observe angry or depressed people and see for yourself. For question #2, the mind is influenced by both feelings and emotions, and understand that feelings are part of the narrative that we create and easily believe is true, yet is not necessarily true.
I‘m a little confused. You write: „Unlike happiness for example (a feeling), joy (an emotion) involves little cognitive awareness—we feel good without consciously deciding to—and it’s longer lasting.“ Doesn‘t this sentence say that emotions is longer lasting? But later in the text it says that feelings are the ones which last longer. Somewhere else (not on this website) I also read that emotions are more sustainable. Can you please clarify?
Your body can’t think, and therefore you body does not have any concept of time. What is, is just what is.
The mind thinks and therefore lives within duality (a word cannot exists without its opposite), and that includes past, present and future.
“Feelings” are mental constructs – essentially they are ideas, and ideas can last a whole lifetime.
To illustrate: “Pain” is an idea of the mind. From the body’s perspective, it’s called “tension.” Some like it (the masochists), other do not.
My humble opinion is that “suffering” comes from the mind whilst “pain” is a condition of the body.
We can get rid of suffering through lots of different approaches and practices which are, more or less, related to understanding how the mind works and how to tame it.
On the other hand, we have a few hundred ways to heal the body, from traditional treatments to ancient medicines, from modern medical methods to holistic ones to spiritual approaches based on the fact that our thoughts can lead us to develop physical disorders and illnesses.
Overall the article is very good. Only that this particular part seems contradictory-
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—and it’s longer lasting. 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.
Could you please throw some more light on it ?
This article does not state facts but rather shares a perspective. How would you phrase this in a way that makes sense to you? Think of love, for example. On the lower end of that spectrum is the love that grows and shrinks, which is not love but attachment. Today I love you, but tomorrow maybe not so much. Next comes the kind of love that only grows and never shrinks, e.g., usually the mother’s love for her child. Next comes Divine love – absolute, unconditional, eternal. Similarly, first you have feelings. Today I think the experience of XYZ is good, but tomorrow maybe I’ll have a change of mind and think it’s bad. Next you have emotions: raw and unfiltered. They are what they are, exist pre-thoughts, and never last forever. Last you have the essence of who you are, which essentially is neutral because it is complete.
Very good site Thanks
I think it is funny that the ones who talked crap, when given the opportunity to explain their negative comments, have no answer.
I have been experiencing this emotional feeling in a love way,and I feel attach to music and I just need help to create them to form my own music but I found it very difficult, please help me
Thank you for your interest. I encourage you to seek help with someone close to you. Be well!
So, you propose people without narratives? To remove their narratives?
If you feel sad, accept that you feel sad and fully welcome the emotion, but don’t dwell on what happened that led you to feel this way. Focus on moving towards what you want, not away from what you don’t want.
A thought provoking and well written informative article.Well done.
For the examples, what I was seeing, is if you could feel it towards someone, it’s an emotion. Is that correct?
It’s not so much what you feel that’s important as the meaning and importance you assign to it.
I need help explaining the differences between anticipation and anxiety to my son. He says he’s “anxious about going to such and such tomorrow.” It could be his driving test day or it could be a party with a girl he fancies attending, to him it’s all the same anxiety. I tell him that’s not anxiety, that’s anticipation. He says no and wants anti-anxiety meds. Why? Because his classmate takes them “and she never has trouble sleeping!” She actually is medically taking for specific disorders but brags to others in school how easy her life is for having to take them! H E L P !!!!
We fully understand your concern, but the only people you should take advice from in your situation are trained and qualified professionals you have met face to face and fully understand your situation. Consider talking to a local counselor or therapist. We pray all will unfold for the best of all involved.
Frankly, this is most confusing article I have ever read.
I think you have made very good attempt to distinguish both and you are helpful too, however,
there are lots of contradictions. Joy and Happiness were the prime example of confusions that this article is causing.
I believe, you are definitely much more learned and experience than me, however, I request you to go through each word once again.
Somehow, I can not see clear cut distinctions. By the way, I am suggesting not because I disliked it, in fact, it is the opposite thing. Thanks for the article.
Compare this two statements:
1) “Paul Ekman devised six basic emotions: …., ….., ……, happiness, ……. and ………”
Later on, in your text
2) “Happiness is a feeling.”
I agree with you, but do not have an answer. You are pointing here at the limitation of the English language. It’s like Eskimos who have 20+ words to describe snow when we only have 1. I encourage you to consider the essence of the point I am attempting to bring across rather than focus on the detail.
In your example of the two salesmen , what is the emotion ?
Well, in the context of this article I’d you have 2 possible emotions. For one person it is that of hope and potential, for the other it is that of hopelessness and fear.
This is a difficult subject and I commend you for trying to explain the distinctions. As much as people would like to have a comprehensive list, it simply does not exist yet and therefore the essence is what we have to work with. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for the last several months to get me though an extremely trying life situation. One thing I’ve learned in doing this is that there are a limited number of physiological sensations that the body can sense and these are the ones that do not rely on mental processes and therefore could be labeled emotions. Once one is in tune with his body it becomes more evident that the mind has a significant role in how we describe our feelings. Some examples: frustration, annoyance, irritation; to the body these all feel like anger, only the mind can differentiate between frustration and annoyance because frustration and annoyance rely on social cues or expectations. Similarly, anticipation, nervousness, apprehension, fright; to the body these all feel like anxiety, outside of the situational context (which is interpreted by the brain) the former could not be accurately identified. The reason this is so confusing is because most of us intuitively interpret our situations and emotions as a part of life, the reason it becomes necessary imo to differentiate feelings is for communication and relationship purposes. One more example: say your roommate comes home later than they said they would and you present the problem to them by saying “I was anxious because you’re late” your roommate will probably respond with “and what do you want me to do?” but if you say “I was worried because you were out longer than you said you would be” they will probably respond with “I’m sorry, I should have sent you a message saying I’d be running late.” In this case you were both anxious and worried, the anxiety being an emotional state and the worry being a feeling. Your roommate cannot address your emotional state, it has nothing to do with them, however they can address your feeling of worry and once the worry is addressed then the underlying anxiety resolves on it’s own. I’m hoping this helps clear up some of the confusion and shows the process by which one can determine which is which.
Hi. Interesting article. I was trying to find some clarity between emotions and feelings but here love is listed as an emotion early on and then later as a feeling (with attraction as an emotion). Similarly early on emotions (like joy) are ‘long lasting’ but later emotions are listed as ‘intense but temporary’ with feelings being ‘low key but sustainable’. So I’m still confused! 🤔
Well spotted (and fixed)! Here is a different perspective. The mind is made of four processes. (1) Consciousness: This is simply the receiving bit of the mind: it doesn’t pass judgment on anything. I personally place emotions there. (2) Perception then identifies what has been seen, and judges it as positive or negative. (3) Sensation arises; it’s either pleasant or unpleasant, depending on our perception. The emotion you felt in step (1) slowly gets relabeled as a feeling in steps (2) and (2). (4) Reaction occurs, and we act to either prolong the sensation if it’s pleasant or to avoid it if it’s unpleasant. I’m in no way suggesting that this is an absolute truth, but it’s mine for now 🙂