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Our emotions and motivation

The main function of our emotions is to help us adjust our behaviour and adapt to our environment. Emotions are the constant radar we use to appraise our experiences and determine our behaviour to maintain optimal conditions.

Our emotions tell us how we are coping. Through our emotions we appraise the significance of whatever is happening that in turn motivates our response. Emotions provide our rapid response system and each emotional appraisal makes us inclined towards a certain response. As such emotions are never neutral, they are always motivating, either energising or draining us.  

Emotions are always linked to what we are trying to do. Any event in which we have an interest will generate emotions. Emotions differ from moods in that they are about some personally meaningful circumstance, i.e. they have an object, whereas moods are often free-floating or objectless. 

Our goals determine what we pay attention to and our emotions sensitise us to the cues in the environment we use monitor progress towards our goals. Emotions register the significance of what is going on, the nature of the significance determines the emotion and the degree determines the strength.  

Negative emotions are the warning lights that signal we are in a potential win-lose situation. They guide us and help us cope with threat and competition and minimise loss or injustice. They trigger fight, flight or giving up. Fear, sadness and anger are our first line of defence against external threats of danger, loss, injustice and trespass. Negative emotions, however, also narrow our focus on the problem. Expressing anger leads to more anger. Rumination, hate and bitterness all amplify the negative impact of bad events.  

In contrast, the positive emotions guide us to win-win situations and set up a mindset described by Professor Barbara Frederickson as one that 'broadens and builds' a positive response.  For example, kindness generates total engagement and loss of self-consciousness; gratitude amplifies our memory and appreciation of good events and forgiveness reduces the negative power of bad events. (You can listen to Professor Frederickson outline her 'broaden and build' theory in the Positive Psychology audio section.) 

Copyright: Alan McLean, 2006

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