Aristotle was one of the first to recognize the value of emotion and see it as a positive force. To him, emotions were a manifestation of desire as a motivating factor. Without desire, we would never experience the urge to protect ourselves—or do anything at all, for that matter. Ideally, action should be guided by reason and purpose. Emotions are motivating factors that incite us to action.
Emotions have their origin in the universal human state of wanting (desiring, wishing for, hoping for) something. The level of wanting determines the state of our emotions. Much of what we want is instinctive, and some of it is learned as we grow.
We define success as getting what we want. We think of failure as not getting what we want. As far as causes for want or needs are concerned, one thing seems clear at the outset. As with anything else, we could either start our lives with wants, or we could pick them up along the way – or we could do a bit of both. In other words, some wanting could be instinctive, and the rest would have to be acquired (learned).
Let me explain the difference between learned wanting and instinctive wanting.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, some of our wants are learned (or acquired). Whenever we experience something pleasurable and enjoyable—going to the beach, eating a hot fudge sundae, making love, learning to ski, playing the piano—we want to experience those things again and again. On the other hand, whenever we experience something unpleasant or painful—being bullied, failing a test, breaking an arm or leg, struggling financially, experiencing rejection—we will do everything possible to avoid those experiences in the future. This is learned wanting. We experience something and we remember the feelings associated with that experience, whether positive or negative.
As we mature, we don’t always have to experience something to know that we want it—or want to steer clear of it. We’re able to combine our past experiences with creativity and reason to make decisions.
That last type of wanting can also be influenced by anything that affects our conditioning. Anything from the past behavior of our parents, to the recent effects of advertising, might contribute to the direction and intensity of our wanting.
Some of our desires and wants are instinctive. We’re usually aware of our learned wants and desires, but we may not be aware of instinctive desires consciously, at least not at first. They come from a deeper subconscious place within us. Because we’re not aware of them, they can catch us off guard and feel overwhelming when they do make themselves known.
In terms of defining these instinctive wants, psychologists and psychiatrists have not been able to come up with a definitive list. The most we can say with assurance is that human instincts exist. In this book, we’ll focus on some basic instincts: self-preservation, sex/reproduction, family, and society.
Sometimes urges are used interchangeably with instincts. For instance, we all have a basic need for air, water, food, and shelter. For our purposes, though, these urges can all fit under the umbrella of self-preservation. Sometimes aggression is referred to as an instinct, but I prefer to see it as a behavior, not an instinct. When we’re threatened physically in some way and respond with aggression, we are operating from an instinct of self-preservation. But if someone rejects us and we respond with aggression, this isn’t coming from the same place. Instead, it might be from a learned desire to avoid being hurt that stems from an experience we had as a teenager.
Regardless if the wanting is instinctive or learned, our ability to connect emotions to wants and specifically defining our wants is key to our well-being and serve as a manifestation of our emotional intelligence.
As such, Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize your emotions, understand what the message they are trying to provide us, and realize how our emotions affect other people. In other words, when we understand how we feel and able to translate it to our needs, it allows us to attend to ourselves while able to manage relationships more effectively.