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A Quick Guide to Emotion

Here we look at topics related to emotion to get to know this subject better.

Key points

  • Emotions differ from moods, thoughts, and feelings in important ways.
  • We can also catch emotions from other people, a phenomenon called "emotional contagion."
  • Understanding how emotions work can help us better manage them.
 Darius Bashar/Unsplash
Source: Darius Bashar/Unsplash

Emotions are also a key ingredient in well-being. It's hard to imagine well-being without happiness. And emotions like sadness and anxiety can make well-being more difficult to achieve. So let's learn more about emotions and how they work.

Emotions versus mood

Emotions differ from moods in that emotions typically last minutes to seconds whereas moods can last hours or days. So if we said, "I'm feeling down," that's referring to a mood. But if we say, "I'm sad that Mark didn't show up to dinner," we're referring to an emotion. Of course, emotions can contribute to moods, and moods can contribute to emotions, so they generally overlap.

Emotions versus thoughts

We know that thoughts and emotions are different things, but they actually overlap quite a bit. For example, we can't experience an emotion like regret without evaluating something that we've done (i.e., thinking about it) and making a judgment about our actions. Many emotions work this way in that they would not exist if not for the thoughts that created them.

In addition, many of the words we use to describe our experiences are a mixture of thoughts and emotions. For example, words like brooding, resentful, and disturbed represent a combination of thoughts and emotions.

Emotions versus feelings

We also tend to use the word "feeling" interchangeably with emotion, but feelings include both emotional experiences and physical sensations. For example, we might say we're feeling hungry, feeling tired, or feeling itchy even though these are not emotions. But we can also feel emotions—for example, we may feel upset, angry, or sad (see here for a list of emotions).

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a type of intelligence that is defined as the ability to monitor and regulate one’s own and others’ emotions and to use emotions to facilitate one’s thoughts and actions (Brackett, Rivers, & Salovey, 2011). It's generally broken up into the following four parts:

Emotion perception: This involves the ability to correctly perceive emotions, including facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

Emotion facilitation of thought: This involves the ability to use one‘s emotions to aid problem-solving.

Emotion understanding: This involves understanding emotions, including the way that emotions change over time, the causes and consequences of emotions, and how emotions may blend together.

Emotion regulation: This involves the management of one's own and others' emotions and usually involves the up-regulation of positive emotions and down-regulation of negative emotions (Elfenbein & MacCann, 2017).

Each of these aspects of emotional intelligence helps us navigate the world more effectively. So let's dive into each of them a bit more.

What about positive and negative emotions?

When we think about emotion, we often focus mostly on negative emotions. Negative emotions are unpleasant or undesirable states. Even though we may not like negative emotions, they help us do important things in our lives. For example, fear can help us escape from a predator, anger can help us right injustices, and sadness can help us rest or seek social support. This just shows that we need negative emotions.

Positive emotions are pleasant or desirable states. These are just as important as negative emotions. If we understand what increases our positive emotions, we have a better chance of increasing our well-being.

Emotion contagion

OK, so we know a bit about our own emotions. But can we catch other people's emotions? The research suggests that yes, we can. Emotional contagion—or the transfer of emotion between people—appears to occur easily, even in online situations (Fan, Xu, & Zhao, 2018). We tend to feel bad when others feel bad and good when others feel good.

Some researchers suggest we might reduce emotional contagion by alternating between moments of self-awareness and moments of other awareness (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1993). For example, if we're starting to feel anxious but can't identify any clear cause, we might try to turn on our emotion perception to see if we're "catching" anxiety from someone we're interacting with. Then we might aim to become more present in our body and help the other person regulate their emotions to reduce our negative emotions.

Emotional health

Ultimately, emotional health arises from positive thoughts and behaviors—things like emotion regulation, a healthy diet, and effective communication. Good sleep, a good diet, and regular exercise all make it easier for us to regulate our emotions. Emotional health and physical health really do go hand-in-hand and work together.

This post was adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.


Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., & Salovey, P. (2011). Emotional intelligence: Implications for personal, social, academic, and workplace success. Social and personality psychology compass, 5(1), 88-103.

Elfenbein, H. A., & MacCann, C. (2017). A closer look at ability emotional intelligence (EI): What are its component parts, and how do they relate to each other?. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(7), e12324.

Fan, R., Xu, K., & Zhao, J. (2018). An agent-based model for emotion contagion and competition in online social media. Physica a: statistical mechanics and its applications, 495, 245-259.

​Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current directions in psychological science, 2(3), 96-100.