Why do we have different feelings?

– Charan and Aishwarya V., 10 & 8, Rutherford, New Jersey

Dear Charan and Aishwarya,

Imagine you are playing a game of soccer and your best friend is on the opposing team. The sun is out, you are having a great time, and you score the winning goal. You’d probably feel pretty happy and so would your team.

But if you stepped in your best friend’s shoes, the emotion might be really different. Think of the players on the other team, too. Even if they had fun and played their hardest, they may be a little disappointed.

Humans feel all kinds of different emotions. They use them to react to different situations, whether that’s playing a game or maybe coming face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger.

For your ancestors, an emotion such as fear could help increase the chance of survival if they did run into this ferocious feline. When people are faced with a potentially dangerous situation, changes in the body happen automatically.

A fear signal from the brain makes the heart race, muscles tighten, and the mouth gets dry. The body gets ready to fight or run away. You may express this fear on your face. That’s a signal to people around you that they’ve got to get ready to act.

My friend Sara Waters, a psychologist and researcher at Washington State University, is really curious about human emotions. She asks big questions about how and why we develop them and how we share them.

When you were a baby, you probably couldn’t express your emotions very well. You had to cry a lot to express yourself and get what you needed. Maybe you threw tantrums. But you soon discovered they didn’t work very well.

You may not have had the right words for your emotions yet. When you learned to talk, you started to give your emotions names, Waters explained. The grown-ups in your life probably helped you figure out what those names were. Sad. Happy. Mad. Then, you could start figuring out your feelings on your own and express them to others.

Waters’ research actually looks at how some mothers and their babies sort of catch one another’s emotions. When moms look at their babies with a certain emotion, the babies will also show those emotions. They’re kind of like copy cats.

Maybe after winning the soccer game your friend gives you a high five. Your friend tells you that it was a little disappointing to lose. Maybe your own team has lost in the past and you remember how it feels. You have a whole range of different emotions you can use to navigate the world, better understand people, and make good decisions.

What kinds of things do you do to bring others happiness? How do you show kindness? What makes you happiest? Make a list or tell us about it sometime at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

 

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