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The Sixteen Laws of Emotions: Recognizing Moods and Emotions to Return to Healthy Feeling Processing

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

To provide a context for this article on laws governing emotions, it is essential to be clear what is meant by an emotion. In a practical way and according to dictionaries, emotions are considered strong feelings, ones that typically include both physical and cognitive outcroppings or manifestations. Emotions can be distinguished from other cognitive states, such as will/volition, motivation, thinking or cognition, sensory perceptions and the awareness of physical sensations. Emotions like fear, anger, love and hate typically have some focus of attention, that is, they are about something you’re aware of specifically. Some examples-you may be angry with your boss for having you work overtime on the weekend, or be fearful of losing your girlfriend given the two of you not getting along very well recently.

All feelings only occur inside of bodies and offer feedback concerning the internal and external environments moment-by-moment. No one has any direct control over feelings arising, only what one does with the feeling itself when it arises. When anyone simply feels the feeling and allows it to move all the way through the body in some healthy expression, whether it is physically, interpersonally, artistically or spiritually, it’s message and information can be decoded. When the message a feeling brings is clear, the necessary actions can be undertaken, and when complete, the feeling typically dissipates, dissolves and disappears. Then another feeling will arise, and so can be processed as well. This pattern is highly adaptive under a broad range of life conditions, unless you allow or permit your mind to keeps re-triggering it through thoughts that continue to animate that feeling. In this case, the feeling can often turn into a mood or emotion.

For example, being angry you can physically work out, swim, jog or briskly walk with the commitment to feel through and release the angry energy, yet it tends to not dissipate so long as you keep having “hot thoughts” over what happened that set up the anger along with feeding this fire with thoughts of being a helpless victim, enacting revenge or taking deep insult, shame and humiliation. Sometimes you may want to work up a feeling into an emotion, whether it is being irritated and looking to get angry or like an infatuation that you want to work up to approach the emotion of love. Turning a feeling into an emotional state is problematic at best.

It is only our minds or ego-minds that feed energy and thoughts to feelings that then regularly become moods that last for hours and, if continued, become emotions that last longer still. Emotional states typically get in the way of life working productively and effectively. It is enough to feel, get the kernel of truth inside of feelings, and meet the need so presented. Turning feelings into moods and emotional states creates untold drama and unworkable patterns of behavior and relationships. So, forewarned is forearmed.

Here are sixteen relevant laws of emotions, the first twelve adapted from the trailblazing theoretical work of Nico Frijda, along with four of my creation.1 The benefit in reviewing and becoming familiar with these laws of emotions is the recognition of emotions when present and some understanding about how emotions practically function. When you find yourself in the midst of a mood or an emotion, the opportunity is to recognize the specific mood/emotion, give it a whole lot less thought, time, importance, energy, and activity. It can then dissipate while you process the feeling, and all is well.

Sixteen Laws of Emotions

1. The Law of Concern: Feelings and emotions arise in response to events perceived as important to a person’s concerns, goals and motives;

2. The Law of Apparent Reality: Feelings and emotions also arise by events that are perceived and evaluated as real, and their intensity corresponds to their realness as perceived, heard and felt;

3. The Law of Change: Emotions are generated by the actual or expected changes in favorable or unfavorable conditions—the greater the change, the stronger the resulting emotion;

4. The Law of Comparative Feeling: An emotion’s intensity depends upon the relationship between an event and a given frame of reference the event is evaluated against, such as an expectation or existing state of affairs;

5. The Law of Conservation of Emotional Momentum: Emotional events that are re-stimulated by similar or relevant emotions, thoughts, behaviors and environments retain their original power to trigger emotions infinitely, unless habituation or extinction occurs given repeated exposures;

6. The Law of Habituation: Emotional events, whether continued pleasures or miseries, that are satisfied and not re-stimulated, tend to wear off, lose their vibrancy and fade over time.

7. The Law of Affective Contrast: Loss of a desired, satisfying emotion yields positive misery, while the loss of an undesired, dissatisfying emotion yields positive happiness;

8. The Law of Hedonic Asymmetry: Pain may continue under continued disturbing conditions while pleasure consistently relies upon change and fades with continued satisfaction. Sensory pleasures, especially sexual and culinary, tend to be extremely dependent on context (including internal, external and social environments. Most sensory pleasures are experienced not in the present or on-line domain, but rather in the past remembered or the future anticipated realms;2

9. The Law of Closure: Emotions tend to be absolute with regard to judgments and are closed to the requirements of goals or judgments of relativity of impact other than their own-therefore emotional reactions can be experienced as absolutely certain and can last indefinitely;

10. The Law of Care of Consequence: All emotional urges or impulses elicit a secondary emotional urge or impulse that tends to modify or influence it in regard to its possible consequences; a secondary feeling tends to moderate or inhibit the original one given possible adverse outcomes;

11. The Law of the Lightest Load: Whenever a situation or circumstance can be perceived in alternative ways, there is a tendency to perceive it in a fashion that minimizes unpleasant, undesired emotional load;

12. The Law of the Greatest Gain: Whenever a situation or circum- stance can be perceived in alternative ways, there is a tendency to perceive it in a fashion that maximizes emotional gain and enhances one’s image;

13. Law of Emotional Mimicry: There is an unconscious tendency to mimic another person’s emotional mood when in their proximity and observing their posture, voice and facial expressions. In the field of psychology this is referred to as “emotional contagion.”3 “Senders”, those charismatic people who are proficient at facially expressing emotions,4 can influence another’s feeling states, especially individuals who are particularly susceptible,5 that is, feeling imitators or emotional chameleons. Men and women are most vulnerable to senders in love and power relationships. One example is a person who “carries” another’s emotional upset and feels badly (imagined guilt), when the person only wanted to be sympathetic to another;6

14. The Law of Emotional Validity: Feelings and emotions offer valid feedback that reflect the inner physiological and cognitive states as well as outer environment, although they need to be checked by examining how realistic the underlying thoughts are since these may not be true. For example, you may feel panicky, notice your belief that someone will physically hurt you, check the reality of this idea and find it false, and the feeling of panic quickly dissipates. Thus the feeling was valid based on your perception, thinking and beliefs; yet it wasn’t true, that is, in accord with reality;

15. The Law of Emotional Coloring of Judgment: An emotional state tends to color one’s perception. For example, nearly anything one perceives is appraised more positively when one is happy and more negatively when one is sad.7 Similarly, angry people tend to make extreme judgments of blame, while frightened people tend to overestimate risks of crimes, diseases and accidents;8

16. The Law of Emotional Expression Yielding Growth or Harm: Naturally and repeatedly feeling, expressing and releasing emotions through you to closure or completion yields true emotional growth. Not engaging in this process by avoidance, denial, long-term suppression, continually retriggering emotions with thoughts, working up feelings, acting out emotions, not releasing feelings as well as over-feeling or over-expressing emotions results in harm. You may carry these incompletely processed feelings in your body-mind as muscular tightness or armor, emotional numbness, developing dis-ease or somatization, as well as the mentality of blame, shame and fault-finding.


1. Nico H. Frijda, “The Laws of Emotion”, American Psychologist, 43 (5), May, 1988, pages 349-358.

2. Paul Rozin, “Preadaptation and the Puzzles and Properties of Pleasure.” In Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, & Norbert Schwarz (Eds.), Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999), pages 109- 133, reference: page 129.

3. Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo, and Richard L. Rapson, Emotional Contagion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

4. Howard S. Friedman, Louise M. Prince, Ronald E. Riggio, & M. Robin DiMatteo, “Understanding and Assessing Nonverbal Expressiveness: The Affective Communication Test,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39 (2), 1980, pages 333-351.

5. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000, reference: pages 84-87.

6. Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo, and Richard L. Rapson, Emotional Contagion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pages 165-182.

7. Gerald C. Clore, “Why Emotions are Felt.” In Paul Ekman & Richard J. Davidson (Eds.) The Nature of Emotion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pages 103-111

8. D. J. Gallagher & G. L. Clore, “Emotion and Judgment: Effects of Fear and Anger on Relevant and Irrelevant Cognitive Tasks.” Paper presented in May, 1985.

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