By CHRISTIAN MORRISON
Throughout the ages, many have tried to explain where human emotions come from and what influences how one experiences them. Curiosity of how our inner minds work led to the creation of moral philosophy, which is crucial for understanding the origin of emotions. Though many philosophers have given their thoughts on the topic, no one quite covers the inner workings of the human mind like Adam Smith does in his book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” In his book, Smith provides many excellent theories as to how humans experience feelings and how others influence the way in which people experience their own emotions.
Humans, naturally social, have built a dependency of their mood around the mood of others. When friends, for example, are sad, those who care about them also feel a degree of sadness in themselves. This, of course, does not mean that humans are able to feel what others are experiencing in terms of their emotions. Instead, they have an illusion of what the other person feels by putting themselves in that situation and thinking how they might react if they were put in that exact situation. This being said, it is impossible to truly feel for someone and understand the pain or happiness they are going through because humans imagine themselves going through that particular experience and not the person that is actually going through it. Adam Smith says, “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers”.
The extent of the emotions humans feel for others also greatly relies upon the situation that the other person is found in. It is natural for humans not to feel great sympathy or joy for an individual, even though they are happy or sad, without knowing the situation that pushes these emotions upon them. Until this inquiry of their status is met with one’s full satisfaction, it is hard to feel greatly moved by their plight or their reason to feel joyous. The emotions that are felt for others largely depends on how the other person imagines what they would feel like if the situations were reversed and to what degree the circumstances that cause these emotions are.
Humans also feel the need for the validation of their emotions, and they seek this from others that they deem to be like minded. By telling others one’s own thoughts and feelings on a subject, a person hopes to gather sympathy for his or her feelings and derives pleasure from someone else sharing his or her views. It is a great shock and disappointment to an individual when they find their companion to be at odds with what they feel. This need to share our feelings with others comes from an inner want for mutual sympathy. When a friend agrees with how one feels about a situation, a person gets a positive sensation that comes from the satisfaction of having someone to agree with him or her. That is why humans mainly share their unhappy feelings rather than happy ones. Adam Smith acknowledges this trend by stating, “It is to be observed accordingly, that we are still more anxious to communicate to our friends our disagreeable, than our agreeable passions, that we derive still more satisfaction from their sympathy with the former than from that with the latter, and that we are still more shocked by the want of it”
This occurrence can simply be explained by the want for a positive emotion in trade of a negative one. For example, if a person’s family member had recently passed away, then they would naturally want to inform their friend of their misfortune. The reasoning behind this is that that person, deep down, is looking for happiness and satisfaction from that friend’s reaction to their situation. By informing their friend of the situation they are in, the person, for a short period, alleviates their own negative feelings and replaces it with a happy sensation. It is worse, however, for an individual to find no support from his fellows than to have kept the matter to themselves. The support of a group of friends is, therefore, critical to the regulation of positive and negative human emotions.
Adam Smith, is a great Scottish moral philosopher because he brings up many good points throughout the entirety of his book about the state and causes of human emotions. Humans, he states, cannot feel what another person feels, but only can imagine what they would feel like. For example, when a novel is read the person does not know how their favorite character feels, but they picture, often with help of the description of the situation, how the character ought to feel. The social situation of humans also greatly influences their emotions, and how they experience them.
When a person’s friends agree with how they feel about a particular thing, their approval makes them feel happy that other people feel that they are justified in their beliefs. However, if their friends find their plight or cause of joy not substantial enough to support their feelings for it, they often feel crushed and discouraged from feeling that way.
In these ways that Adam Smith beautifully proposed centuries ago, the emotions of humans are influenced on a day to day basis by outside social factors that they conform to without even realizing it.