For the larger part of psychology’s history, emotions tended to have a bad rap. Almost all the early psychological research implicitly framed emotions as unwanted, problematic influences on our behaviours. Unsurprisingly, early studies focused on problematic emotions or problematic emotions-related experiences. Frequently-used measures of such experiences include the DASS (depression, anxiety and stress scale), Beck’s hopelessness inventory, and Steinberger’s STAXI (state and trait anger expression inventory) – all of which are questionnaires that have been used to assess and guide diagnoses of mental health issues. The study of the negative, and its maladies, is of course, important, and forms the basis for medical models of health. Advocates of positive psychology, too, even with their emphasis on strengths and positive emotions, agree that research into the possible treatments of maladaptive emotion emotions is important. Martin Seligman, famously known as the founder of positive psychology quotes,” If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago.” But why do we have emotions – even the unpleasant ones – in the first place? That is a question more readily answered if we examine emotions from an evolutionary perspective.
Researchers in the field of evolutionary psychology posit that human psychological processes can be seen as adaptations that serve two broad, overarching goals: survival and reproduction. That is, how we are – and why we have been ‘wired’ to think, feel, and act as we do, actually serve to enhance our chances of survival, and passing on our genes to our offspring. The principle engine of evolutionary processes are natural and sexual selection. Certain qualities, or traits are ‘selected,’ either by nature, or by our sexual partners, as desirable. Organisms with these specific qualities and traits had a better chance of survival and being selected as mating partners, leading to more copies of genes being passed on from one generation to the next . What we see today as ‘problematic’ or ‘negative’ emotions – anger and fear, notably, actually served important functions and conferred crucial benefits in our more dangerous, ancestral environment. Hunters and foragers scouring the wilderness for food would have had a better chance of survival (and subsequently mating) if they were aware of the threats and dangers in their environments. The ability and propensity to feel fear – as a means to avoid threats, or anger – as a means to aggressively guard one’s resources or territory, would have meant the difference between life or death for ancestral men and women. The hunters and foragers who survived then, would then go on to have children, and the capacity to feel these emotions would have been retained over and over until they became typical in our species . As a corollary to this point, consider what would happen if we did not have emotions. If we lacked the inability to feel fear, we would have also lacked the capacity for detecting threats and dangers; if we lacked the ability to feel anger, we would not have been able to defend ourselves physically from those threats and dangers.
Fear and anger would have direct, immediate consequences for our survival, but evolutionary theory too, points to the rationale for our more ‘social’ emotions. Consider love, gratitude, envy, and guilt. These emotions are often experienced in relation to another – we love our children, feel grateful towards friends and members of our community for the assistance they offer us, feel envious when someone we compare ourselves to has something we desire, or guilt when we realize that our behaviours have harmed others. As a highly interdependent species, such emotions too, would have been useful in helping us navigate our social interactions. Over time, these social emotions would have been necessary – desired even, to a point where evolutionary processes would have made them typical in our genetic and psychological make-up. Evolutionary processes have engineered our cognitive, emotional, and behavioural processes in the service of helping us get along with others. Again, it helps to think of what it would be like if we did not (or could not) experience love, gratitude, envy, guilt, or other-related emotions such as compassion and respect. This tends to be a useful way of thinking about emotions from an evolutionary account. You can try it yourself – simply ask the question, “Are we necessarily better off without this emotion?”