16 Oct 2011
Bad Feelings as Adaptation
We do instinctively things that feel good, and avoid those which do not. This is no accident. As we have seen earlier, emotions are adaptations that serve a fundamental purpose to our survival. They inform us about what is good for us and what is not. Bad feelings are an adaptation to a complex environment with frequent bad conditions, good feelings an adaptation to good ones. A good condition is a favorable person-person or person-environment relationship, a bad condition an unfavorable one.
Bad feelings in particular tell us what is bad for us, what we should avoid, and what (or whom) we should steer off. They provide us information about unpleasant, dangerous and threatening situations. Disgust for example tells us that we should avoid eating something because it might make us ill. In this sense, disgust can be good for us. Disgust is a defense against precarious infections, fear is a defense against dangerous predators, and pain in general is a defense against invasive forces.
Emotions like fear, anxiety, and pain stem from mental adaptations to a dangerous world, they tell us what to avoid. Depression and addiction stem from mental adaptation to a hard world where beneficial resources are difficult to find. They tell us which goals we should to give up and which goals we should continue to pursue.
Thus if we listen to bad feelings, we can extract information that will help us improve our lives, as Nadja Geipert said in this Psychology Today article. In her article, she explains the roots of jealousy and envy. Like the other negative emotions, they tell us that the situation does not look good:
- sadness tells us we are going to lose an important resource or relationship
- disgust tells us that we should avoid something because it might make us ill
- fear tells us that we should avoid something because it is dangerous
- pain tells us that we need to protect our body because it has been damaged
- envy tells us what we need but are not getting, because somebody else has it
- jealousy tells us we are going to lose a loved one to the embrace of another
- depression tells us that we should stop doing what we do and try something different. It is an adaptation to desperate or hopeless situations
Therefore negative emotions are not completely bad, they serve a purpose. Unfortunately, if we identify them and pin them down, they are are not resolved yet. Even we listen to the message, it is sometimes difficult in modern times to cope with it. For example, there is nearly always someone in modern civilizations who has more wealth, beauty, success or fame than you. As a NYTimes article said “envy is a tax levied by civilization“. Or is it?
(The image is the illustration of the corresponding NYTimes.com article from Natalie Angier.)