Sunday, March 3, 2013

Laws of Emotion

In his 1988 article, Nico Frijda proposed several "laws" that govern human emotion.  Reason, he explained, is not the opposite of emotion.  To the contrary, emotions appear to follow certain "laws," akin to the "laws of nature" that govern various aspects of the physical world. 

Emotions form the very core of my work as a psychotherapist; psychological wounds cannot be healed by rational thought alone.  And yet, emotions can be difficult, distressing, or deeply confusing - for everyone, myself included.  Part of my job is to guide others through a sea of complicated emotions without overwhelming them. 

It helps me to understand how emotions function, which is why I found Frijda's work so interesting.  In all, Frijda identifies twelve laws of emotion; I have no intention of discussing them all, at least not today.  Rather, I thought I'd talk about a few of the laws that seem most relevant to my work (and quite frankly, to my personal life as well). 

The Law of Habituation: Repeated or continued exposure to any given emotion decreases the intensity of that emotion.  Consider the popular adage, "Time heals all wounds."  This truism is not entirely accurate.  It is not time but habituation that causes the pain of loss to abate over time. Unfortunately, it is not only pain that loses its edge with the passage of time; so too does pleasure.  Upon accomplishing a long sought after goal, we initially experience a surge of pride, excitement, and satisfaction.  These feelings fade once the novelty of the situation wears off.  Love, romance, and passion are similarly intoxicating in the early stages of a romantic relationship; over time, however, we habituate to these emotions, causing them to gradually lose their lustre.  The law of habituation also explains why people who repeatedly bear witness to the cruel and inhumane treatment of others eventually become impervious to human suffering.

While there are no constraints on the amount of pleasure to which we can habituate, the same cannot be said for suffering.  Frijda explains this rather eloquently: "There exists, it would seem, misery that one does not get used to."  He calls this phenomenon the law of hedonic asymmetry.  The basic premise is this: we habituate to even the most intense feelings of pleasure, which therefore abate with continued exposure.  Pain, on the ohter hand, will persist unabated in the presence of continued adverse circumstances.  (I'll talk about why this is some other time).

So satisfaction "wears off" but pain never does.  How depressing is that?  But Frijda suggests -- almost as an afterthought -- that the outcomes of these laws are not inevitable.  He goes on to say something very profound, a truth that seems to resurface again and again.  "Adaptation to satisfaction," he explains.  "Can be counteracted by constantly being aware of how fortunate one's condition is and of how it could have been rekindling impact through recollection and imagination."  Frijda is telling us to practice gratitude.  If we make time each day to think about and appreciate the good things in our lives, we can renew and invigorate our feelings of happiness and satisfaction.


  1. One of the many reasons for my path was to choose the happy old man as opposed to the grumpy old man that can't be bothered. This takes a real concerted effort when you are living with a disability, but doesn't mean you have to lower your expectations for self-fulfillment. And I think meditation would help anyone to accomplish this, regardless of religious have to look at How You Think, which is the main hurdle.

  2. And the human body can adapt in ways you never thought possible.


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