How Emotions Interact
In traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine, emotions are viewed as having relationships of mutual promotion and counteraction. This is how they are thought to interact:
- Anger promotes joy and counteracts anxiety.
- Joy promotes anxiety and counteracts sadness.
- Anxiety promotes sadness and counteracts fear.
- Sadness promotes fear and counteracts anger.
- Fear promotes anger and counteracts joy.
Does this theory of emotions, which instantiates Wu Xing, make sense? Let us look at the ten hypotheses one by one:
1. Anger promotes joy.
In my article on catharsis, I have argued that anger induces a sense of strength and vitality, which may be experienced as joyful or heighten a joyful state. On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine someone afflicted with uncontrollable anger reveling in joy.
2. Anger counteracts anxiety.
This would explain why people with low self-esteem often want to be angry: because getting aggressive soothes their anxiety. Though why not postulate, for example, that anxiety promotes anger?
3. Joy promotes anxiety.
A generally joyous, privileged, unburdened life with little struggle and too much leisure—too much time to think—might lead to overthinking and eventually anxiety. Still, it does not seem obvious that joy would typically promote anxiety.
4. Joy counteracts sadness.
This is trivially true.
5. Anxiety promotes sadness.
Not only does anxiety worsen an already sad state; it also holds us back from taking action, and inaction—weakness of the will—causes sadness and depression.
6. Anxiety counteracts fear.
Being anxious, we shy away from threats that would trigger fear; and worrying about the future, we might be so detached from the present that we cannot even be truly afraid. However, I could conversely argue that when I stand alone in front of a wild grizzly bear, the reality of fear would immediately vanquish all my petty anxieties, thus fear counteracting anxiety.
7. Sadness promotes fear.
This would mean that when I am afraid and something makes me sad, too, I would get even more afraid. I could imagine that with anxiety, but with actual fear? Do I even have room in my heart for sadness when I am facing an immediate threat?
8. Sadness counteracts anger.
Someone who is really down, does he have the energy, can he even care enough to get angry? No way: true sadness will incapacitate his anger. Furthermore, we have scientific evidence for a variation of this relationship. In two studies (2015), Zahn and colleagues provoked anger in their participants before they had them watch a sad, a fear-inducing, or a neutral movie clip. Those who had watched the sad clip were significantly less aggressive afterwards in a competitive game involving white noise punishment.
9. Fear promotes anger.
This relationship, too, is backed by Zahn et al.’s experiments. Those participants who watched the fear-inducing movie clip were significantly angrier afterwards than the others. Although they did not get angrier per se, the additional fear markedly slowed down their recovery from the initial anger provocation. Moreover, fear and anger are functionally similar as both are directed at external objects and characterized by goal-driven responses: flight or fight.
10. Fear counteracts joy.
Think about terror attacks, venomous spiders, random acts of violence, and death. Are you happy now? Yet at the same time, I could also argue for the opposite, namely that facing certain fears releases adrenalin, which makes activities like fighting or bungee jumping so amazing. That would be fear promoting joy.
In conclusion, these relationships between emotions seem largely reasonable yet arbitrary. But while we could make up examples and explanations for all kinds of arbitrary relationships, we can also formulate them as scientific hypotheses and test them empirically, as Zhan and colleagues did with #8 and #9.
How to Control Emotions Effortlessly
Interestingly, interemotional relationships open the possibility of cognition-free emotion regulation. Usually when you want to control your emotions, you have to exert willpower to suppress them or make an effort to change your perspective on the situation: you have to use cognitive top-down control and prefrontal power. If, however, emotions promote and counteract each other, then you can use that to your advantage—to regulate your emotions indirectly and effortlessly by inducing others.
A simple example, based on #4, would be listening to joyful, upbeat music when you feel down. This is effective and does not require executive control, only a few clicks or screen taps. Another example, based on #8, would be to think about the passing of someone you loved—using visualization to induce sadness—when you know you should really not get angry at the person in front of you who might exploit your emotionality or fire or stab you. Although visualization might require some cognitive effort, it is not a top-down process aimed directly at the emotion you want to control; it is more like a flanking attack.
In Willpower Condensed, I have written about how you can use the emotion of true pride to counteract all unwanted desires and negative emotions that compromise your discipline and hold you back in life, hold you back from achieving your goals. The principle is the same:
Emotional self-control is […] not a battle of the mind against emotions, but a battle of your true pride against the enslaving emotions you seek to control (typically, pride versus pleasure). The stronger your authentic pride, the more willpower battles you will win. This reveals the first secret to more willpower: Embrace and invigorate your feeling of true pride! (p. 11)
I also explained how you can do that in the field:
(a) Understand that (anticipated) authentic pride is the emotional foundation for self-improvement and the best source of self-control motivation. (b) Adopt a straight, healthy posture with every step you take; this also increases your physical attractiveness, mood, and overall confidence. (c) Use positive visualization by imagining what it will feel and look like when you stay true to yourself and receive praise or love from people you respect. (d) Use negative visualization by imagining what a loser you will feel like when you do not do your True Will. This works great for some people; others do better with staying entirely positive. (e) When times are tough, remember your most valuable achievements, core values, and fundamental life principles. (pp. 33f.)
Yet we shall keep delving for additional strategies of effortless emotion regulation. There may be plenty. We might be using them even without us realizing. So take a deep look into yourself and ask: Do you ever indirectly enhance positive or flank-attack negative emotions? If you do, please tell me about it in the comments below.
Zhan J, Ren J, Fan J, Luo J (2015). Distinctive effects of fear and sadness induction on anger and aggressive behavior. Frontiers in Psychology 6(725), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00725.
- Willpower Condensed: Master Self-Discipline to Do Your True Will
- To Control Your Emotions, Understand and Label Them (Affect Labeling)
- “Emotional Intelligence Is for Pussies”
- This One Word Makes Your Self-Talk More Effective for Emotion Regulation
- Does Catharsis of Aggression Work? The Truth about Anger Release