Emotions as the meaning of life

And so we continue our search for the meaning of life. Robert Solomon’s The Passions offered an interesting take on this question. He proposed the idea that emotions are the meaning of life: as in they add the meaning in a life; emotions add meaning to our experience the world.

When I first came across this idea, I thought it was strange, but really it does make sense. Emotions have a strong effect of perception. Perception heavily influences our understanding of reality and thus has an impact on the meaning we attribute to things, life itself being one of those things.

Emotions are probably the strongest mental phenomena, built of thoughts and feelings – and very importantly, ultimately resulting in action, as the name suggests. Emotions are the driver of behaviour. My entrepreneurial soul was quite impressed when I heard that every sale is a promise of a future state. Emotions rule us, so we may try to be a little bit more aware – and perhaps less disrespectful to them.

Solomon argues that emotions are judgements rather than plain feelings arising from bodily reactions. Emotions tells us whether something matters – or is meaningful. Solomon also argues that emotions are in a sense chosen, sort of along the lines of stoic philosophy. As with beliefs, emotional judgements are often unintentional and unconscious, but we are still responsible for evaluating and changing them if that’s warranted.

 

According to Matthew Ratcliffe, Solomon sees emotions as the ‘meaning of life’, in the sense that they are a precondition for the intelligibility of all our goal-directed activities. If no actual or possible states of affairs were ever judged by us to be preferable to any other, we would have no grounds for action. Without emotions, we could have no projects, nothing to strive for, no sense of anything as worth doing:

“I suggest that emotions are the meaning of life. It is because we are moved, because we feel, that life has a meaning. The passionate life, not the dispassionate life of pure reason, is the meaningful life.”

emotions are the meaning of life robert solomon
Everything looks better in the sun

As someone who has spent some time studying emotions, I occasionally hold out hope that one day science succeeds in transcending the prism of bias and emotion and we are able to see the world without the emotional projections. Being that little bit pragmatic though – and seeing people like N. Taleb do it, I realise that we have to give up on overintellectualising and accept our limitations – or rather break up with our illusion that we are so above our lowly emotions.

The interesting thing about Solomon’s writing is that he emphasises the existential aspect of emotions: this our experience of being present.

The other interesting aspect is how neuroplasticity affects our perception: any time we experience an emotion a certain pathway gets potentiated and the next time we perceive similar inputs, the fact that we experienced an emotion relating to it previously will have changed the way we see the world. There is positive feedback here.

Neuroplasticity affects everything, but a lot of it is mediated through emotion. My personal working theory is that the meaning of life is the impact that you have (appreciating that that’s very vague, but the point here is that it’s different to the en vogue “the meaning of life is happiness”). But how do I decide what is full of impact? I need to feel that it has meaning. The exact values I consider to be full of impact may in theory be independent of emotion, but in reality they are completely affected by emotion. That warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment has to flow through me to know that what I am doing is meaningful. I usually only arrive there through what would look to an outside person as a silent CBT session with myself, so it isn’t entirely detached from intellectualising, but it has to feel right in order for me to know that it is right.

What if I do find something meaningful? It is going to invoke strong emotions. The common denominator of meaning does seem to be emotion.

Solomon drew a lot of Martin Heidegger’s concepts of mood. Mood is probably a more more precise word for what Solomon was talking about. The weather (emotion) matters less than the climate (mood) when we decide on the meaning of things around us. Our moods probably invoke the exact brands of biases and focuses of those biases that will allow us then to form our ideas on the meaning of what we see. Heidegger has an interesting definition for mood: it is a background sense of belonging to a meaningful world. That’s kind of like saying that I, as an object, have a relationship with all these other objects and I am trying to evaluate the condition of that relationship. “Sun’s out, so everything is good” or “Nobody is replying to my emails, so I feel like sh*t”. This certainly describes my mood a lot of the time, but then I slap myself and go back to a more Stoic/Nietzschean attitude to evaluating my own actions rather than the world’s response to me.

Reality is real no matter how we perceive it, but meaning is pretty personal.

P. S. I wrote a Haiku while sitting on a beach in Dublin:

An old dog,
once black, now wiser,
at sunset.

Here is the culprit:

robert solomon the passions emotions as meaning of life

P. P. S. I also drew something mighty odd. Feel free to indulge in the madness mindfulness and colour it in.

mindfulness-colouring-for-adults-psychedelic-seagull-snail-hand-drawn

Download PDF: psychedelic seagull with snail beak

Ok, very last thing. If you liked this, you may also like Footnotes to Plato, specifically a post on the why one would develop a philosophy in life.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. George F. says:

    I feel, therefore I am.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this so much 🦋

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, that’s very sweet!

      Like

  3. Steve Ruis says:

    Interesting. (I developed a philosophy for my life quite some time ago.) but I am puzzled mightily why so many write about “giving their life meaning” and the like. Many people write about this but I do not see many doing anything about it, a sure sign that it is not all that important. The people I see who are acting on providing meaning for their lives are either gentle, humble folks who want to “make the world a bit better for others” (these are few in number) and really scary people with “agendas” (these are few but seem to be more than the others). Most people do not seem to be focused on providing meaning to their lives.

    A seminal thought experiment involved in developing my personal philosophy was I wondered what happed to all meanings were the human race to disappear for one minute. For 60 seconds, “poof” everyone is gone; then they are back. What happens to all meanings for that 60 seconds? My impression is that they are gone, alone with all of the love, hate, etc. Consequently they seem to be the product of the writers of this soap opera we are enacting and not very consequential.

    On Tue, Jul 18, 2017 at 5:18 AM, Thinking Clearly wrote:

    > Dr Martina Feyzrakhmanova posted: “And so we continue our search for the > meaning of life. Robert Solomon’s The Passions offered an interesting take > on this question. He proposed the idea that emotions are the meaning of > life: as in they add the meaning in a life; emotions add meaning to ou” >

    Like

    1. That’s all very true. You have a way of always taking away my philosophical comfort zone whenever I find one. Ultimately, I think the very process of thinking about this makes us into better people.

      Like

  4. E says:

    One other very helpful resource comes from Marshall B. Rosenberg: The surprising purpose of anger. Beyond anger management: Finding the gift (2005).

    When “translated” into words clients find easy to understand, the approach makes so much sense to clients that changes occur fast (nearly immediately).

    1. Identify the stimulus (trigger)
    2. Identify the internal image or judgment (cause), i.e. the perception or evaluation of the event.
    3. Transform the judgmental image into a need (identify missing needs).

    it is empowering as soon as clients understand that how they feel is not directly related to what happens, but the meaning (interpretation) they give to the event.

    Thanks for your wonderful and thought provoking postings…

    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, that’s very clear and structured! Quite reminiscent of stoic philosophy!

      Liked by 1 person

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