The relationship between needs, values, emotions and well-being

To figure out why emotions can be unhelpful at times, I’m currently in the process of building my own model to understand the links between needs, values, emotions, subsequent decision making, and well-being, hoping that understanding these links may help improve my own well-being as well as my interpersonal relationships.

Very briefly put together, my basic assumptions are that I, like everybody else, have a set of idiosyncratic needs (N), which I would classify into three domains–biological, psychological, and cultural or social. Those needs are represented by values (V), and that experiencing these values (including thinking back to or imagining future experiences) or the environment’s response to or challenge of them is one of the main contributors to the experience of emotion (E). Subsequently and mostly unconsciously emotions lead to a change in the trajectory of a person’s interaction with the environment, in short immediately or long-term altered behavior (B), and I would call this effect of emotion motivation (M) towards a goal (G) which is linked to the value. Given the motivational component, a person is then either propelled to unconsciously act according to genetically preprogrammed or habitually learned responses (R), or–if the emotion and motivation become conscious via awareness (A) and particularly if they are represented by language (L)–is able to select and apply a more cognitively appraised, goal-oriented strategy (S) to improve the chance of fulfilling the underlying need. Below, I will give a few more details about some of the highlighted terms, to define them more clearly and set them apart.

In my mind, needs are parameters and conditions that have to be satisfied to maintain proper function of the body, the mind, and social relations. If the needs are satisfied appropriately and in balance with the needs of our environment, including the needs of other people, this will enhance chances of individual as well as species survival and well-being. Importantly, not all needs are equally urgent to be satisfied, and both the passage of time itself as well as interacting with our environment changes the amount to which each need requires satisfying for continued well-being.

To allow behavior to be “in tune” with our needs–that is to say for our brains to figure out what needs we actually have, how urgent each of them is, and what we have to do to satisfy them–those parameters and conditions are represented by values. Unfortunately, these representations are not necessarily always the most helpful ones, but can be biased and distorted or even woefully incorrect. We may for instance greatly value something that actually doesn’t fulfill any need, or we may have no representational value for a critical need, both leading to a potential for long-term dissatisfaction. For example, people may have a high value for recreational drugs and (over-) use them even though the body reacts negatively to their consumption; on the other hand, people may have little value for (or even aversion towards) socializing and human interaction, but if they have this as a psychological need, they will also experience lower well-being. In this context and as far as I understand, I think it’s important to note that economic and neuroeconomic models only represent values, which together build the utility function (U). In other words, economic decision making is not necessarily geared towards need satisfaction, which I would call contentment, but towards increased utility, something I think of more as happiness.

While the value system we have is fairly flexible, I think it’s still worth pointing out values can be either genetically pre-programmed (such as our liking/wanting of sugary foods), learned (such as liking/wanting of receiving money), or inferred, concluded or simply “copied” from people we trust (such as liking/wanting the concept of sexual chastity). Values can be either positive, i.e. sought, desired, and preferentially chosen, or negative, i.e. avoided.

Given that psychological and social needs can be satisfied with a much larger and diverse set of stimuli and contexts, there are probably more possible values than needs. E.g. the need for social approval can be satisfied via others’ liking as well as someone’s submission, respect, etc. And some people seem to prefer being loved, others may prefer being feared or revered. Taken together, one of the most important predictors of well-being would be an accurate, helpful, and environmentally balanced value representation of needs.

At least for some needs we have a direct emotional response in case a lack in its satisfaction is registered, either consciously and/or non-consciously. And certain responses seem to be typically associated with emotional states that are triggered to generate motivation directly towards fulfilling the need or countering a threat for satisfying the need in the future. For some biological needs, emotional responses are fairly clear, such as feeling tired when we need sleep, thirsty when we need water, or hungry when we need nutrition. And a severe lack may result in higher aggression potentials, given the urgency and severity of the condition.

For psychological and social needs and their values, it is in fact much more complicated to understand typical emotional responses, given that the way in which they are elicited and expressed seems to depend on (among other factors) whether

  • a positive value is experienced (e.g. liking and pleasure)
  • a positive value could be experienced in the future (e.g. wanting/craving)
  • a negative value is experienced
  • a negative value could be experienced in the future
  • a (positive) value is threatened by the environment
  • a (positive) value is threatened by an intentional agent (other person)
  • actions of the person him- or herself make it more or less likely to experience a value
  • actions of someone else make it more or less likely to experience a value
  • whether these actions were intentional, out of neglect, or out of ignorance

Obviously, this is merely the beginning of creating a model. Once I get a little further along with it, I would like to be able to make more accurate predictions about which emotions are most likely to be elicited in specific contexts.

For my own long-term well-being it seems critical that I learn a few key things:

  • becoming aware of the emotions that I have
  • correctly identifying the value or values which led to these (complex) emotions
  • to be able do so, having the language necessary to identify the emotions
  • attempting to back-track from the values to the underlying needs they represent
  • if no need seems to exist, the value may have to be altered to improve well-being

And in situations of experience “lack or loss” of well-being (discontentment) without strong emotional responses, it may be necessary to try to identify the need or needs that are not being met and attempting to generate or set up values that represent those needs.