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Feelings Reveal Whether Life Is Worth Living

Emotions are the felt answer to the question whether our life is fulfilling.

Key points

  • Physiological changes, facial expressions, and bodily movements are all included in the bodily changes that are perceived and felt as an emotion.
  • Emotional feelings increase in the diversity of their expressions as more and richer aspects of cognition are added to human psychology.
  • Emotional feelings reveal whether life is worth living; they emerge where suffering, well-being, value, and meaning merge.

The Rich Variety of Possible Emotional States

In 1896 William James presented a lecture, "Is Life Worth Living?" shortly after publication of The Principles of Psychology, his fundamental work grounding psychology in the empirical sciences by avoiding reductionism. His own emotional life was a great quest to respond to this question (Kaag, 2020). James challenged the dominant thinking about emotions.

Noah Silliman/Unsplash
One possible experience of life worth living
Source: Noah Silliman/Unsplash

According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “The novelty of his perspective cannot be overestimated” (2018, p 1). The basic premise of James' new theory of emotions—that bodily changes lead to emotional feelings—ignited the debate about the relative importance of bodily processes and cognitive appraisals in determining emotions.

In his classic text The Principles of Psychology, James presented a theory of emotions that fits well with this premise (1890). He launched a century of research and debate on the connection between physical changes, cognitive processes, and emotional feelings. William James presented a bold proposal: Emotions are the sensation of bodily changes, or as he put it:

“My theory, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion(Vol. 2, p. 449, italics original).

Bodily changes arrive first, and the conscious experience of feeling an emotion follows. Physiological changes, facial expressions, and bodily movements were all included in the bodily changes that are perceived and felt as part of an emotional experience. James goes on to explain that without bodily manifestations, there can be no feeling of emotion, and all that would remain “would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth” (James, 1890, Vol. 2, p. 450).

Through this description, James acknowledged that cognitions co-occur with emotions but are not a direct part of the experience of an emotional feeling.

Emotions Are the Felt Evaluations of Our Life

For a long time, basic emotions were the leading emotions. During the 1970s, psychologist Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions that he suggested were universally experienced in all human cultures. The emotions he identified were happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. He later expanded his list of basic emotions to include pride, shame, embarrassment, and excitement.

As research on emotions started to grow in the 1990s, the number of emotions only increased. Conventionally, emotions were divided into positive and negative categories. At first, happiness and surprise stood as lonely positive emotions among the vast majority of negative emotions. This changed dramatically when the positive psychology movement unfolded under the leadership of Martin Seligman. A rich scale of positive emotions was added to the list of emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, awe, pride, amusement, inspiration, love (Fredrickson, 2009).

Beyond Positive or Negative

Lately we seem to be moving away from the division into positive and negative. Each emotional state has its own rich spectrum of cognitive evaluations accompanied by a rich texture of felt bodily changes. There is not something as a fingerprint of an emotion to be found in the brain. (Feldman Barrett, 2017)

What remains is an enormously varied field of emotional feelings that guide our lives. In their long history as an essential part of the natural intelligence of life, emotions have only increased in the diversity of their expressions. As more and richer aspects of cognition were added to our human psychology like a large set of specialized senses, an extensive capacity for memory storage and a rich language skill in which “the self and mine” ever more became the central players.

When urban cultures arose about 7,000 years ago, where superhuman kings, promising empires, and omniscient gods ruled, the cognitive evaluations we made about the state of our lives only became more complex and elaborate. Just as emotional feelings became increasingly differentiated during the evolution of life, the same happens every time a new human being grows up: Our cognitive evaluations become extended with imaginations about our future self; our psychological life expands with anticipated emotional feelings and memories of experienced emotions.

Is Life Worth Living?

Emotions are among the essentials of human life. If as children we constantly live in an environment where violence, uncertainty, and fear prevail, a lack of confidence and a sense of insecurity will come to dominate our cognitive evaluations and complementary feelings. If while growing up we repeatedly experience emotional neglect, are not accepted, or are limited in our expressions based on dogmatic categorizations of our culture or our parents, our self-schema and emotion schema—internal representations that form the building blocks of our emotional life—will create recurring tendencies that narrow and limit or expand and open our perceptions of possibilities.

All this has great implications for the development of our bodies and our health. If the body has to develop in a climate where stress signals colonize the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, it can leave a lasting mark on our sleep patterns, our food consumption, our mood shifts, our identity. The same goes for the nurturing qualities of a warm and safe environment. Our emotional health is deeply embodied, begins early in life, and continues until we die. Whether we judge our lives to be worth living or not arises only in the ongoing process of being alive.

This way, the development and evolution of our emotional feelings has a persistent, deep impact on what we tend to do, think, and become. Whether we see life from a narrowing and limiting perspective that sometimes sticks to an ideology or dogma is emotionally embodied. So the question of whether life is worth living is strongly intertwined with our emotional feelings. William James experienced this from within.

The complex psychological phenomenon of emotion is rooted in the natural intelligence of life. Emotional feelings emerge at the intersections where suffering, well-being, value, meaning, and the subjective experience of it come together. Your body and its emotional states is the directly experienced story about the value of your life. There’s no escape from feeling the deep evolutionary wisdom of being alive. Only your emotional feelings reveal whether your life is fulfilling, meaningful, valuable, and worth living.


Damasio, A. & Damasio, H. (2018). Emotions and Feelings. In The Nature of Emotion. Fundamental Questions (Second Edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

Feldman Barrett, L. (2017). How Emotions Are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain. London: Macmillan.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive. Oxford: Oneworld.

James, W. (1981/originally published 1890) The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

James, W. (1896). Is Life Worth Living? Toronto: Walsh Philosophy Collection.

Kaag, J. (2020). Sick Souls, Healthy Minds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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